Some years ago, while I was lifting a kettlebell and making a movement at the same time, I got a sharp pain in my lower back. Around the same period of time my left knee started grinding and I got pain in my right shoulder.
I could see that the situation was caused by stress: Going over my limits and trying to squeeze in yet another a workout in an increasingly busy schedule. But why did the other symptoms show up at the same time? The sudden back-pain had a trigger. At the time, the other pains seemed unrelated.
We all know what pain is. Pain, and how you deal with it, is an important part of the human experience. However, the nature of pain can be very complex. Physical pain will influence how you feel and can cause negative emotions. On the other side, your emotional life can also influence your level of physical pain and how you perceive it.
Are people with depression more likely to have physical complaints as well? You bet. Research from the University of Bergen in Norway shows that the strongest predictors for wether or not you will develop back pain is not physical, but depending on psychological and social factors. It is not about how your back looks like on an MRI scan, it is about how you are doing socially and emotionally at work and at home. The state of your vertebrae and tissues do play a part, but having a hard time in your relationship or at work can be the trigger that starts the pain.
The American doctor John Sarno claims that many ailments, such as chronic back and neck pain, serve as unconscious ‘distractions’ for unwanted emotional issues. Deal with the issues and the physical symptoms will eventually disappear. A remarkable number of successfully treated patients will confirm that this approach works.
Does that mean that pain is all in the mind? How pain is experienced is very subjective, but it is real to the person experiencing it. There is no pain center as such in the brain. Pain involves lots of elements, most importantly nerves, immune cells and chemicals. These systems interact, creating systems of action, attention, memory and emotion. How they combine is essential to the experience of pain.
Pain can be entirely in the mind. A well know example of that was reported in the British Medical Journal in 1995:
A builder aged 29 came to the accident and emergency department having jumped down on to a 15 cm nail. As the smallest movement of the nail was painful he was sedated with fentanyl and midazolam. The nail was then pulled out from below. When his boot was removed a miraculous cure appeared to have taken place. The nail had penetrated between the toes: the foot was entirely uninjured.
Another example of how the mind influences the perception of pain is from a famous paper about wounded soldiers WWII. Soldiers coming from the battlefield with severe injuries experienced surprisingly little pain, probably because they were so glad to be off the battlefield.
The fact remains that body-pain is a big problem, personally and for society as a whole. Almost 20% of the Dutch population suffers from chronic pain. In addition to the personal suffering caused by the pain and subsequent lack of mobility, it results in huge financial losses due to lost working time and strain on public health care
I was running half marathons and lifting weights when I got my back injury. I was strong, but an analysis of my posture showed that my whole body was out of balance. Certain muscles were overworked, tense and painful while other muscles were not doing their proper job. The fact that my knee and shoulder started hurting at the same time were part of the same problem and showed me that the body functions as a unit.
Muscle spasms cannot be detected in MRI’s or X-Rays, but are more often than not the cause of both chronic and acute pain. In a state of contraction the metabolism in muscle tissue and fascia will get restricted. Nutrients don’t reach the cells and toxins stay put, resulting in increasing tension and more pain.
Traditional medicinal models does not offer a real solution. Often pain killers are prescribed with the suggestion to ‘just wait it out’. So you wait…, and after 3 months the pain is perhaps better, but not gone. Often you just get used to it and try to ignore it, but slowly you start giving up activities, like sports, biking and walking. You end up in a vicious circle of body pain and negative emotions.
I first tried out a number of traditional treatment methods, but without succes. Based on the idea that if you give your body the chance, it will heal itself, I went on a daily program of simple stretches, postures and movements designed to help your body work according to its original design again. As every muscle again started doing the work it was meant to do, not only did my pains subside, but I also started to feel better and more at home in my body
In addition to improving my posture I also started to look at what drove me to fill every moment of my day with activity. I discovered that I was avoiding making certain difficult choices in my life and I needed to deal with some unfinished business in my personal relationships. That done, I knew I had taken an important step and I could relax more in the here-and-now.
Chronic pain can be a real show-stopper in your life, but it has the potential to be an opportunity as well. It is a chance to make changes to a dysfunctional lifestyle, discard old beliefs and thought patterns and to focus on what is important for you and makes you happy. You did not ask for pain, but by taking responsibility for it you can later look back and be grateful for an opportunity to grow.