Healing Back Pain: The Mind Body Perception

9 minute read

[“It is totally without logic to propose that after millions of years of evolution during which mankind has become the dominant species on this planet that somehow our bodies have become structurally incompetent or that we have become so fragile that we must be careful of how we move, how we use our bodies or engage in repetitive activities. This is unadulterated nonsense we are not made of paper-mâché we are tough and resilient adaptable and quick to heal”]- Dr John Sarno

What is chronic pain?

It can be mild or excruciatingly episodic or a continuous but a mild inconvenience or totally incapacitating. However, it has and has been going on for a few months or longer.

Anyone who has had long-term or even chronic pain knows very well that it’s one of the most detrimental things to our quality of life. The pain can be caused by a variety of issues ranges from your bones to your joints, nerves, or even muscles. Depending on the source of the pain treatment can involve the use of painkillers or physical therapy. Surgery is also an option but if the pain is coming from other issues (discs, ligaments, joint arthritis, myofascial pains, nerve injury) — then surgery may not do anything for the pain. This is because difficult to find the primary source of the pain and so it’s very difficult to treat.

Back pain is one of the most common cause of job-related disability and a leading contributor to missed work days. Perhaps you yourself are suffering from chronic lower back pain or perhaps even experiencing chronic pain elsewhere such as your joints, nerves, or muscles. If so then you’ve probably been bounced from pillar to post starting with your local doctor who eventually took you seriously enough to refer you to a medical specialist. They may have ordered an X-ray or EMG to better understand the issue. The specialist may have advised rest but that didn’t help, so prescribed physical therapy and then referred to a rheumatologist or neurologist — but that didn’t work either. So you decide to try alternative medicine; you know chiropractors, osteopaths, acupuncturists, massage therapists, nutritionists but still, the pain remains.

So Many Specialist, So Many Test, So Many Different Answers

Seems like there’s always something a doctor or specialist can point to as the cause of your pain. Perhaps you’ve noticed some of your symptoms don’t really make sense. One day it’s neck and shoulder pain the other day it’s lower back pain or even leg pain.

In my opinion, I believe Dr Sarno has come further towards solving these kinds of problems than anyone in the western medical field has ever come close to. Working out of the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine in New York. Dr Sarno worked for decades with patients who ha chronic pain disorders of different kinds he is primarily a back doctor and so he has dealt mostly with back problems. He saw many cases where his patients didn’t respond as he expected to the conventional treatments of the day, considering the physical symptoms with which they presented. In addition to complaints about neck, back, and shoulder pain he noticed a connection that his patients often shared a common pattern of underlying tension. His approach is simple. Chronic pain is caused by repressed emotions in the unconscious mind.

We Repress Out of Necessity

Dr Sarno tends to see the most persistent cases of chronic pain. Those people who have had problems for many years. What he tells them is this your problems are not physical you are not injured in any way. The pain is real it’s not in your head it’s physical pain but the cause is emotional, more specifically repressed rage stored in the unconscious mind. The purpose of physical symptoms is to prevent repressed feelings from entering your conscious awareness by diverting attention from the realm of the emotions to that of the physical it is a strategy of avoidance. In his book, Dr Sarno describes how the body remembers the pathways of old injuries “phantom injuries”. He tells us that not only are repressed emotions the source of chronic pain, he also claims that repressed emotions are the source of headaches, migraines, pelvic pain, irritable bowel and other gastrointestinal complaints — chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, carpal tunnel and repetitive strain syndromes, vertigo, dizziness, insomnia and even psychological equivalents such as anxiety, panic attacks, depression and phobias. There are many conditions where pain spontaneously appears but don’t really know why. Sometimes the manifests as weaknesses in the muscles sometimes with tingling sensations. Often doctors have no idea how to actually treat your symptoms so they try a cocktail of drugs to help reduce the pain temporarily but that does nothing for the pain in the long term. Dr Sarnotermed this phenomenon Tension Myositis Syndrome — TMS for short. His treatment for TMS involves no medication no physical therapy none of that it is purely an educational therapy.

Chronic Pain: An Epidemic of Fear?

The purpose of the pain is to divert your attention from an internalised rage to keep it well hidden in the unconscious mind because to see it would be worse than the pain or so the unconscious mind thinks. The unconscious mind works very differently to the conscious mind and as a result of this difference both respond to and process emotionally charged events and traumas very differently…

In reality, we have three minds:

  1. The conscious
  2. The subconscious
  3. The unconscious Science understands very little of any

“It is an interesting fact that the overwhelming majority of emotional and mental activity occurs below the level of consciousness. The human mind is something like an iceberg. The part that we are aware of, the conscious mind, represents a very small part of the total. It is in the subconscious mind that all of the complicated processing goes on…this condition begins and ends in the unconscious.” — Dr Sarno

Dr Sarno’s work is primarily concerned with the conscious and the unconscious aspects of the mind. The subconscious is a fascinating area but it’s only relevant to the extent that this is where learning takes place.

In his book Healing Back Pain Dr Sarno’s describes how feelings generated in infancy and childhood permanently reside in the unconscious may be responsible for our psychological and physical symptoms throughout life. He goes into detail about how strong, painful, embarrassing and threatening feelings like rage grief and shame are repressed in the unconscious; as well as how repressed emotions constantly strive to come to consciousness. He then outlines the different types of personality traits that are common among TMS patients.

  • People pleasers
  • Highly anxious people
  • Stoic individuals
  • Low self-esteem

He brings up some examples of things that might make your unconscious mind angry to the point of rage. For instance, it can be the man who felt compelled to participate in an activity he dislikes to please his wife or the adult taking care of his or her elderly parents not objecting consciously but seething inwardly. It can be the young man and woman who was sexually abused as a child or the woman with six children who loves being a mother but is unaware of her inner rage at all that motherhood entails or it can be the 55 year old has been angry at their mother or father since childhood.

Show Me The Evidence

So is there any evidence for such a claim? Well neuroscientists have shown how your occupation can alter the very structure of your brain. For instance scientists have shown that black-cab taxi drivers have a larger (hence more developed) area of the brain responsible for storing memory called the hippocampus compared to non-taxi drivers and that gymnasts have a larger area of the brain responsible for complex movement called the cerebellum.Then there’s the stuff of everyday life. For example when your mouth becomes dry just as you’re about to address an audience; the feeling of butterflies in your stomach, the movie that makes your heart skip a beat, or those worries running around in your head that stop you from getting a wink of sleep. It’s no secret that our bodies are intimately connected to our minds more so our emotions, how could it be otherwise..?

Okay, so you might be thinking “well I have an x-ray showing a herniated disk or a scan showing some from of abnormality or something similar that points to the cause of your pain however for example a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine by Maureen Jensen her group studied MRI scans on people who had no symptoms of back pain. 52% of these randomly selected subjects had bulges and protrusions but no symptoms of pain. Given the high prevalence of their findings they came to the conclusion that the discovery of bulges, protrusions by MRI in patients with back pain may be nothing more than coincidental; and that what MRI scans are picking up are normal changes associated with activity and ageing but not pain.

Alright, so you might understand all of this intellectually, but what’s actually happening? Well, the truth is no one really understands what the brain actually doing on a normal day –how we think or even comprehend language. This lack of understanding also extends to the brains’ ability to can cause physical symptoms. However clinical evidence suggests TMS is brought about by the brain through the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is a subsection of the central nervous system that controls the body’s involuntary functions which include the activates our fight, freeze or flight response and the circulation of blood. It suggests that the prolonged activation of the fight or flight response during stressful situations with no ability to escape the situation leads to the restriction of flow blood to the target tissues. As a result, the level of available oxygen is decreased and the net effect is pain. If a muscle or tendon is targeted or numbness, tingling and weakness if a nerve is involved. This mild oxygen deprivation is thought to be the basis for symptoms of tension, dysfunction and physical pain in TMS. It also explains why massages and exercise can cause temporary pain relief in the affected areas as it simply increases blood flow which temporarily increases oxygen levels.

The medical community has adopted a mechanical approach to treating health. That is to say that medical professionals treat the body a well-oiled machine; with poor health being and or chronic pain being the malfunctioning or the breakdown of some mechanical process of the body. While this is mostly a useful analogy it completely disregards the role of the mind and emotions plays in health. This is Where a mechanical approach to medicine fall shot. The need for doctors to point to some sort of structural defect as the underlining cause of chronic pain as led to many medical specialists playing medical whack-a-mole with patients medical health. Treating symptoms and hoping the problem goes away is not a very effective strategy.

Our mental health is often neglected both at social and personal level. This neglect is in part due to a lack of social resources, a lack of trained health-care providers as well as the social stigma associated with talking about ones own mental health. Mental health has become a major public health issue that needs to be taken seriously.

If you’ve been through the medical mill with chronic pain and left feeling lost as to what to do about your pain; or you know someone close to you who maybe dealing with chronic pain then I implore you to take back control of your health and quality of life by reading one of Dr Sarno’s books and change your Perception of pain today.

Hope this helps…