Drug-free Solutions to Chronic Pain

One truth I have learned about chronic physical pain is the more you fight it the worse it gets. Another is that traditional methods for relieving pain often ignore a crucial player:  the mind.

After experiencing only partial pain relief from my spinal fusion 10 months ago, I became convinced that there was another issue that contributing to my chronic pain.  This led me to investigate solutions other than additional surgery or the use of medications to treat this pain.

In my previous blog titled “Get Out of Your Chronic Pain and Into Your Life,” I discussed the benefits of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) in contending with pain.  In this blog, I am going to introduce you to physician Dr. John Sarno whose treatment of chronic pain was featured in a 20/20 segment.

 

As a brief recap of last week’s blog, it is our attempts to combat or avoid pain that keeps us in the trenches with our pain.  Like for many of you, pain killers only reduced my pain; they never eliminated it.  I also tried physical therapy, acupuncture, and chiropractic.  Again, the relief was only partial and temporary.   What was constant was my preoccupation with that pain.  I was thinking about it continually throughout the day.  Sadly, this preoccupation with pain made my world smaller and smaller.  I avoided physical activities that I used to enjoy and withdrew from friends and family because of the pain.

 

ACT recognizes that total elimination of pain my not be possible for some of us.  So we have a choice:  we can live on the sidelines of our life with pain, or we can commit to re-engaging our lives despite the pain.  Amazingly, though, it is this re-engagement with life that allows us to experience freedom from our pain.  To test the validity of this, think of what happens to your pain when you are laughing with friends or fully engaging in a hobby.  For me, the pain disappears because I am not focusing my attention on it.

 

Like ACT, re-engagement in your life is at the core of Dr. John Sarno’s work.  In his New York Times bestselling book, Healing Back Pain, Sarno says that chronic pain is the result of suppressed emotions.  His term for this pain, regardless of whether it manifests in the back, neck, or other parts of the body, is Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS).  The source of this pain?  Suppression of emotions.  For those of you who experience migraines, it is clear that the pain is not something structurally wrong with your brain but that it is brought on by stress and the negative emotions it creates.  So too it is with chronic back and neck pain, according to Sarno.

 

“TMS is a sideshow designed to distract you from what is going on emotionally,” Sarno says.   Because our minds do not want to deal with painful emotions, that pain is manifested in our bodies, just like stress is manifested as intense headaches for migraine sufferers.

 

Interestingly, if you randomly picked 40 adults from the streets and gave each an MRI, you would find that many of them have structural issues with their backs—like ruptured or bulging disk. Yet, some of those people are not experiencing back pain.  In fact, orthopedic surgeons who see these supposed structural “problems” cannot determine just from the MRI whether that person is in pain.  Interestingly, too, when an MRI for a non-spine related issue reveals one of these back “problems,” the patient often experiences the sudden sensation of back pain.

 

So how can TMS cause pain?  The brain is the most complex creation in the known universe.  One of its functions is regulating oxygen levels in the body.  It provides more oxygen to the muscles when an external threat activates the fight or flight response.  Just as the brain can oxygenate the body more, it can also deprive parts of the body of oxygen.  “The direct reason for pain is mild oxygen deprivation,” Sarno says in drawing the connection between TMS and chronic pain.

 

So how do you treat TMS and the chronic physical pain it produces?   In Healing Back Pain, Sarno suggests a series of exercises that will get you in touch with the unpleasant emotions that cause TMS.  Often these emotions are in the form of anger or rage that the mind has suppressed, keeping us unaware of their presence.  Frequently, these suppressed emotions are rooted in childhood trauma, Sarno states.

 

If working through these exercises on your own doesn’t eliminate your chronic pain, Sarno recommends seeking out a therapist to guide you through them in order to  surface and release these pain-producing emotions.

 

Overall, the connection between ACT and Sarno’s work is freeing ourselves of the thoughts and emotions that create our pain and suffering. For those of you who are experiencing chronic pain, consider asking yourself this question: “Am I going to live my thoughts and emotions and the pain those create or am I going to live my life and the joy that can bring?”

 

Together, ACT and Sarno’s work can be a very effective way of treating chronic pain.   So if you are experiencing chronic pain despite surgery, pain medications, and other treatments, consider getting to know ACT and Sarno’s approach.  The 20/20 segment that features Sarno is available on YouTube.  An excellent resource for the ACT approach is the workbook Living Beyond Your Pain by Joanne Dahl and Tobias Lundren.

Get Out of Your Chronic Pain and into Your Life

Chronic pain is very discouraging.  Ten months ago I had a spinal fusion because of a back injury I suffered.  I had been in pain for two years prior to it. And now, as I’m supposed to feel the relief of full recovery, I still have back pain and nerve pain in my feet.

 

Like some of you, chronic pain has robbed me of my zest for life.  And it has left me feeling very discouraged—even hopeless.  But at 57-years-old, I am not willing to spend the next 20 years marooned by medications, living in an opioid stupor.

 

It’s time to get out of the preoccupation with pain and to get into my life.

 

Living an inspired life means making inspiring choices.  One of the most inspiring of those choices was to embrace the power of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).

 

At the core of ACT pain therapy is an essential truth:  elimination of chronic pain is not possible for some of us.  But it doesn’t have to sideline us.  In their Internet workbook called Life with Chronic Pain: An Acceptance-based Approach, Kevin E. Vowles, Ph.D.  and  John T. Sorrell, Ph.D.,  apply the core processes of ACT to pain.

 

They acknowledge that pain, thoughts and mood, and basic functioning interact in a way that contributes to increasing problems and decreasing quality of life.  As so many of us who suffer have come to realize, treatments often fail to provide us with long-term decreases in pain.

 

Trying to change our thoughts and moods also becomes problematic.   “If you wake up in a sad mood, does telling yourself, ‘Don’t be sad anymore.’ lead to any change in your mood?” ask Vowles and Sorrell, knowing, too, that trying not to think about your pain only increases its hold over you.

 

Functioning, though, may be the area where your efforts will have the most impact, according to Vowles and Sorrell.   It’s about deciding what is vitally important to you and pursing it despite pain.  I have found that if I remain on the sidelines trying to avoid anything that may incite my pain, that my pain still exists.  On the other hand, when I am actively engaged in my life, I often forget about my pain.  Consider this: when you are laughing with loved ones, what happens to your pain?  Exactly!  It disappears.  Remember, we give power to whatever we give attention to.

 

Breaking ACT Down

 

The “A” in ACT is about acceptance.  It’s about becoming comfortable with discomfort. “It is not the same as defeat, helplessness, quitting, or resigning to a life of unhappiness, struggle, or misery,” Vowles and Sorrell say.   Acceptance of chronic pain, then, is living a life driven by the things you value despite a physical issue that contributes to pain and suffering.

 

The “C” in ACT is about commitment.   By combining acceptance with commitment, you begin  living a life driven by the things you value despite a physical issue that contributes to pain and suffering.  “Values are what you want your life to stand for,” according to Vowles and Sorrel. “Values are what you want to be remembered for by loved ones and close friends after you have passed.”

 

ACT is about accepting the fact that we all face difficult challenges that we cannot control, alter, or eliminate.  It’s not about “throwing in the towel.”  We, instead, commit to a life in which we are engaged in the present moment with things we value in the here and now.  We live a life, not in the absence of pain, but knowing that there is something more important than pain.

 

I leave you with words that you can say that will help you keep your mind centered on acceptance and commitment.  It is called the Serenity Prayer:  Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.