My Journey Out of Chronic Pain
From 2005-2007 I suffered from excruciating back and leg pain. My pain was so bad that I was unable to sit down for nearly a year. The only time I would sit was to drive myself to work, and the pain during that drive was so intense that there were several times I had to crawl out of my car once I arrived at work. I was formally diagnosed (via an MRI) with a herniated disc and began an assortment of traditional medical approaches to heal my herniated disk. This included seeing two chiropractors (I sought a second one after the first failed to help), two different physical therapists, an acupuncturist, and had three cortisone shots that were injected into my back. While I occasionally experienced some relief after these treatments, it never lasted long and my pain gradually became worse. I reluctantly decided to undergo back surgery to repair the herniated disk.
To help deal with my pain as I awaited surgery, I began exploring non-traditional approaches and I came across a book by Dr. John Sarno called “Healing Back Pain.” In the book, Sarno, a physician, outlined a radical approach to curing back pain that he developed through observing his own chronic pain patients for decades. He theorized that pain like mine was not caused by a structural abnormality, but rather by unrecognized and bottled up emotional pain, which he labeled “Tension Myositis Syndrome” (TMS). Even for me, a counselor, this theory sounded crazy at first. After all, I had an MRI that proved I had a bulging disk!
But there was also something that resonated with me about Sarno’s ideas. First, he described how people with TMS tend to have shifting pain that could manifest in different ways and move to other areas of the body, which could include pain from migraine headaches, heartburn, and knee and shoulder pain. These were all things I have suffered from since I was child—but none of them were occurring now that I had back pain. Second, he outlined how people with TMS often experience more severe pain under times of stress, and that pain could diminish during less stressful times. This was certainly true for me. At the time, I was working very hard to get tenured as a professor at the University of Rochester and my wife and I were raising two small children. It was probably among the most stressful times of my life. I also noticed that my pain would sometimes subside during less stressful times like vacations. Third, Sarno outlined a series of personality characteristics that are consistent with people who suffer from TMS. Not only do TMS patients tend to ignore their own emotional reactions, but they also are incredibly hard on themselves (perfectionistic, highly driven, tend not to seek out help, etc.). These personality characteristics fit me perfectly! Moreover, Sarno argued that an MRI would reveal structural abnormality in almost all patients over the age of 30—but most people don’t experience any pain from it. In other words, my herniated disk wasn’t the cause at all of my pain—rather, it was my personality!
I decided Sarno’s approach was worth a try, so I stopped physical therapy and begin working on my emotions instead. I found a therapist who worked from a psychoanalytic approach that is designed to help clients uncover repressed emotions and I began therapy. I’ll never forget the look on her face when she asked me what my problem was and I told her I had back pain! While she said she had never directly treated a patient for back pain, she admitted that many of her clients experienced reductions in physical pain as a result of therapy. I also began engaging in all of the physical activities I had given up, including playing basketball (something the doctors, physical therapists, and chiropractors all insisted I stop). According to Sarno, you cannot make your pain worse by engaging in physical activity because there is nothing structurally wrong with you in the first place. He also argued that reducing physical activity, especially things we enjoy, actually makes the pain worse. At the same time, I also began a mindfulness practice; this not only helped me deal with my back pain, but it also taught me to be more open to exploring strong emotional pain in therapy.
Miraculously, after just a few weeks of practicing this combination of mindfulness and TMS therapy, I was pain free. Not only was I able to avoid back surgery, but I was also able to heal a number of other chronic health issues I had suffered with for years through this work. I am proud to say I have been pain free ever since. I actually view my back pain as one of the best things that ever happened to me because it forced me to address the emotional side of my life. I am convinced that John Sarno’s work saved my life! It has been my dream ever since this experience to help people like me who no longer want to suffer needlessly from physical pain.