A reader emailed me recently inquiring about “Tension Myositis” – a syndrome proposed by John Sarno, MD as a cause of lower back pain and other musculoskeletal pains.
The theory proposed by Dr. Sarno is that back pain stems from subconscious negative emotions – fear and anger primarily. The suppression of the emotions causes physical changes in the body which then create the symptoms.
Pain is three dimensional – physical, mental, and emotional – and we, both patients and practitioners, tend to focus on the physical aspect only. We search for a “cause” for our symptoms; some structural defect, weakness, inflexibility, etc. And, sometimes, the physical element is the driver of the pain but, sometimes, the pain is not from primarily a physical or structural cause. Sometimes the pain serves as a coping mechanism for subconscious feelings; feelings we do not want to acknowledge or experience and that are below our level of awareness. The pain serves as a way for us to avoid these feelings. In other words, the physical pain is less painful to deal with than the emotional pain.
One of the most common physical ailments, that most everyone agrees arises from things other than a physical cause, is a “tension headache”. I often hear, “Well it’s just stress. That’s why I have a headache” and the person will have a vague idea of the stressor. But the solutions often proposed are usually some type of relaxation or “stress relief” therapy rather than finding the true source of the stress and dealing with it.
Stress is the body’s response to a demand whether it’s caused by a pleasant or unpleasant mental, emotional, or physical stimulus and the response can be either pleasant or unpleasant. Love is stressful but most people would agree that it’s pleasant. Losing your job is stressful and generally unpleasant. In either case, it’s stressful.
A tension headache, pain from tight muscles, is the body’s response to a demand and in most cases the demand is mental or emotional (the mind). You might wonder, “Why does my head hurt so much? Do I have a tumor or something?”
Right before I took my orthopedic boards several years ago, I had a terrific headache. At the time, all I could think about was getting through the test. And, this damn headache was in my way. It wasn’t until after I had finished the test (and the headache subsided), that I connected the dots. I was afraid of failing and rather than deal with that reality and all that it represented, my mind found a more convenient target. It was an elegant coping mechanism.
Where I disagree with Dr. Sarno is the idea that ALL back pain (or shoulder or knee or hip, etc) is emotionally based. A friend of mine fractured his thoracic spine from a particularly rough boat ride and had immense back pain. How he later chose to deal with the injury and pain could then escalate the problem and prolong it (such as ignoring it, forcing his way through it, etc) but the initial injury and resulting pain was clearly physical.
Whenever I see someone with a complaint that just “appeared” one day, I’m a little on edge. Insidious onset of symptoms is one way that some nasty medical problems choose to greet you. A friend of mine once had the sudden appearance of itching in both of her arms. Like she had a rash or some type of allergic reaction but there wasn’t a rash. She saw doctors, specialists and finally was diagnosed with a rare form of bile duct cancer. So, you have to take such complaints seriously and rule out more malicious and even life-threatening disease. Once that has been done, now the issue becomes, “why?” What we all want to know is Why do I have this? I didn’t do anything. It really hurts! I can’t do the stuff I want to do!
Whenever you have symptoms that just pop up, you have to look at a few basic human emotions in addition to the potential physical causes (biomechanical, tissue overload, etc) : fear, worry, anger. These emotions are hard to accept in ourselves and really deal with. We all have parts of us that are not so pleasing to admit or accept. Or, we may have deep hurts that have festered for years creating a sort of toxic nostalgia. Whatever the issues, they are usually trapped in the shadows of the mind like prisoners in a maximum security prison and just itching to get out. Depending on your view, dreams are one way that these issues do get out. You can safely express these emotions. And sometimes, if you examine your dreams, they’re freaky scary – which is why you’re dreaming all that stuff instead of welcoming it as an actual part of you.
So, what do you do? Awareness is the first step and sometimes, depending on the chronicity of the issue, this can take a while – months or even years. And, it’s not something that physical therapy or chiropractic or surgery or other forms of physical remedies will fix alone. And, it generally is not just a psychological approach either that’s needed. It’s a mind and body approach. You need both. You have to be open to the idea you could have repressed emotions that are manifesting as physical feelings and also at the same time, realize that gravity is real. Too much physical load, too fast, too often can hurt you.
A friend, asked me, gently, back in early 2008 after I had seriously injured myself snow skiing, “So, have you admitted to yourself that you’re angry about all of this?” This question prodded me to look at not just the anger I had at the injury but other repressed emotions that were stirred into the anger pot. It was the pivot point in my recovery and one of the most important things I did. Maybe the most important.
And for Dr. Sarno’s book, you can find it here.
Sometimes I use this one word at the end of emails or postings and I think it’s appropriate here: onward. Just keep working on getting better, being honest with yourself, facing things that are scary, and you’ll be surprised at what can happen.
Doug Kelsey, PT, PhD writes about “active aging” – how to overcome aches & pains, get strong, flexible, agile and stay as healthy and fit as possible over your lifetime. If you enjoyed this article, join his free newsletter.