A couple of years ago, the AARP.org health news site posted an article about treating chronic pain without medication, and they used my personal story as an example of someone who healed naturally - without drugs, surgery, or even exercise, after learning about the mind-body connection from Dr. Sarno’s book, “Healing Back Pain.”
For the most part, the article includes a fair representation of the work going on in this field. (At least my story was portrayed accurately, so no complaints there. Except that the photo on the front is not me! Someone must have been short on time and searched for a stock photo of a “mature Asian woman”…)
There are a few statements in the article that I am afraid might steer people the wrong way. For example, when Beth Darnall of Stanford University says that “all pain is real and most pain has a medical basis” I would like to know what exactly she means by that. I don’t disagree that all pain is real, but is she saying most pain is a result of structural problems?
We know from current research and from Dr. Sarno’s and other physicians’ many years of practice that structural issues are precisely not the problem and this misconception is a big barrier to healing. We have known for years that people who have back pain and those who do not are just as likely to have bulging discs, degenerative disc disease, herniated discs, etc. and there is no relationship between these structural changes and pain. However, when people think they must assign a structural cause to their pain, they limit their options for healing, ignore the emotional aspects of their lives, and continue to suffer.
Perhaps by “medical basis” Darnall means that chronic pain is mediated by “learned neural pathways” or a “sensitized nervous system,” both of which are recognized by the medical establishment as mind-body phenomena. However, I have a feeling most people would interpret “medical” to mean “structural” or “physical” and certainly never “emotional.”
This may seem unimportant but it’s an example of how words are so powerful in promoting or detracting from our healing. If someone hears the words “most pain has a medical basis” it becomes difficult to then encourage them to learn about the mind-body connection, prioritize their emotional health, or even pursue non-surgical, non-pharmaceutical treatments.
Words are everything; so much of our healing depends on hearing the right words. It means unlearning the wrong words, and learning the right ones: that your pain is not harmful, it is not structural, you are not doomed to a lifetime of pain, you can cure it and not just manage your pain. When you acknowledge your sadness, your anger, and your anxiety, you can heal yourself. You do not have to fear your emotions or hide them from yourself. You do not have to do it all, you do not have to strive toward some unreasonable standard of perfection. You can accept yourself, you can love yourself, just the way you are. You are enough.
In the end, however, this article is helpful because the author Beth Howard presents readers with an optimistic story. She emphasizes the importance of the mind-body connection with respect to chronic pain and delves into the details of the current research. Moreover, she mentions Dr. Sarno and his work, a subject that can save so many people and yet does not get written about often enough. Coming from a mainstream media site, it’s a seed planted in the American psyche about the mind-body connection and how there is hope for healing from chronic pain.