Here’s the previous two posts on my own process in returning to full physical function:
- Hacking and Tweaking at Back Pain Day By Day
- OK, I Guess It’s On Me To Do Virtual Surgery On Back Pain
Let me do a brief way-back, from late 2010 / early ’11, where owing to heavy weight lifting, I ended up with intense pain in my right shoulder and arm, accompanied by weakness and some numbness. After some weeks of waiting for it to go away (I had never experienced chronic pain before), I ended up going to a chiropractor for ART. When that did nothing but empty my pocketbook after some sessions (thought it was a rotator cuff issue), I blogged about it and both Dr. Kurt Harris and Dr. Doug McGuff told me to get a book by John E. Sarno: Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection. It covers neck, shoulder, arm and a bunch of other pains too (all essentially the same thing).
I kinda dismissed it. You’re telling me this is all in my head? What absurd, woo woo gibberish. Then, I got an MRI and sure enough: cervical herniation. Ha! See? Cause (herniation, “pinched nerve”) —> Effect (pain). Fix the herniation/pinch, pain goes away; healed, all nice & tidy. But there’s a few things I wasn’t aware of:
- Very few people get relief from spinal surgery.
- Most people over 20 have some level of spinal degeneration (just like hair falls out, wrinkles appear, etc.) and over 50, almost everyone has disc herniations. Kurt Harris, longtime MD radiologist, confirmed this. Dr. Sarno calls these “normal abnormalities.”
- Most people in #2 have zero symptoms of pain (also confirmed by Harris).
- And if #3 isn’t cause for hmm, something’s not adding up here, Harris also told me that people with crushed vertebrae from an accident 1) have far less general and specific pain than these people with ‘normal abnormalities’, and 2) the pain typically goes away after a few weeks, just like a broken leg.
So I read Sarno and literally, as I’m reading the introduction, I begin to get some relief after a couple months of near constant pain. Over a process of two weeks, it was eventually gone completely. Came back twice, separated by a couple of months each time and I dispensed with it in two weeks and then a week, respectively. Pain free there ever since. Eventually, the weakness and slight numbness went away, too.
Unfortunately, I didn’t learn my lesson because this time, I was convinced that this time, I really had an injury that required addressing and that it was possible to make things worse; so I babied myself, not realizing that was just feeding into whatever was going on in my head.
That said, I think there’s a better way to do Sarno than just approach it from a mind only standpoint. I’ll explain. But first, what is Sarno and this TMS? Here, you can get a very decent overview in this John Stossel 20/20 segment from some years back. (Stossel himself got rid of 2 decades of back pain in one 3-hr. Sarno lecture.)
The very most common error people make when first presented with this information is just how I dismissed it at first. Here’s how I put it in a comment reply under that video:
“But it would be your subconscious tricking the body that it’s in pain???”
This is the most common misunderstanding of Sarno’s work. The pain is not “in your head.” The pain is absolutely, 100% real and physical. It’s caused by oxygen deprivation to muscle, tendon and nerve tissue, and oxygen deprivation causes intense pain—this is why often, someone with a tiny herniation, or nothing at all, will be in far greater (real) pain than the real pain experienced from crushed vertebrae or a broken femur (both of which will heal in weeks and the pain will go away).
Anyway, the pain is real. However, it’s not being caused by whatever structural thing you think you have. It’s real pain being caused by your mind. Once you realize this and that there’s nothing wrong with you (except whatever is going on in your head), you’re on your way. Ironically, most people don’t even need to understand what emotions or stresses or rage might be going on, such that their mind is creating a diversion from that mental pain (your brain thinks it’s doing you a favor) by means of creating physical pain. Simply understanding that’s what it is is enough for most people, including myself…
The pain is real, absolutely physical, but also psychological in origin—not a pimple on your spinal disc (nor stenosis, that virtually everyone has as they age). It is, in fact, a coincidence. Just because you find firemen at fires doesn’t mean they’re typically the cause of fires.
Sarno is pretty damn simple.
- First and foremost, realize that your condition is normal and common, normally with zero symptoms, and that there’s nothing wrong with you.
- Pushing through the pain rather than baby yourself will not produce greater injury, because there is no injury.
- It is completely unnecessary to psychoanalyze yourself to determine why your brain is sending signals to tissues to constrict, thereby causing oxygen deprivation to those tissues, thus enormous pain. Is is sufficient that you understand that’s what’s happening and absolutely accept that as the cause of your pain.
Of course, you get better at it, just as I did each time the shoulder and arm pain returned for me and why, in just a few days (now that I finally decided to go full force with those steps above), I’m completely pain free a very good portion of the time—and have even been doing some sitting at the computer now, for the first time in two weeks exactly—since I picked up the Topo ergonomic standing desk mat.
So, that’s the experience I wish to pass on now, since in my reading, while a lot of people use Sarno and only Sarno, some take pretty long to fully recover—months even. I think you can shorten that by using a number of therapeutic temporary pain relieving techniques: NOT to heal your chronic pain, but to better understand what’s really going on, affirming those three keys to making Sarno work.
So, this is where you get to self experiment, to see what gives you the best relief and you enjoy doing the most. The key is, it needs to be something that increases blood flow to the painful tissues, or dilates their blood vessels directly. Why? Because the real pain is being caused by oxygen deprivation to tissues. Increased general bloodflow or direct dilation brings more oxygen, pain goes away or you get significant temporary relief. Some ideas.
- Deep massage
- Focussed meditative or Yoga like relaxation
- Exercise with an aerobic element (get blood pumping)
- Heat application
- Chiropractic (with a chiropractor who understands Sarno and can direct therepy towards increased blood flow)
- Postural stuff (dependent upon where the pain is; e.g., standing a lot for back pain)
There are probably others. Here’s my go-to list in order of effectiveness, enjoyment and ease, for me.
- Sunbeam 730-811 Heating Pad plus Massage. Hands down the most effective, easy to use device. I carry one in my backpack. The heat dilates blood vessels, undercutting the oxygen deprivation, and the vibration confuses your local senses, aiding in relaxation. I think the vibration aspect greatly increases the time with relief.
- Hot baths and the hot tub. Same thing, only more widespread blood vessel dilation. I also use a couple cups of epsom salts in the bathtub. No idea if the magnesium absorption does anything. Can’t hurt.
- Teeter Hang Ups EP 560 Inversion Table. This took a while to implement and may have made things worse initially because I was anything but relaxed; I was more tense. Easing the ankle hold one notch changed that and made it into a focussed relaxation table for me. It’s most effective on the hip pain. It’s probably a combination of stretching and relaxation increasing general blood flow, thus undercutting oxygen deprivation.
- VARIDESK PRO combined with a Topo Ergonomic Standing Desk Mat. Probably a number of complex postural, exercise things going on here. It’s really what finally put me over the hump by essentially not sitting for two weeks until later in the evening for TV. Plus, at that level it’s quite fatiguing so sleep (and relaxation) was improved.
- Walking. No brainier. Do it more, even if it hurts. Push through the pain.
So, please keep in mind. None of this will work to fix your chronic pain issue unless you see it for what it is. What it is is to demonstrate to you exactly what you have accepted in those three Sarno steps I outlined. Because, once you dial your mind into what’s going on, you’re going to notice that when, for instance, you apply that vibrating heating pad to your right hip and the pain recedes, now your calf, shin, or hamstring aches—or your left hip. Or, now you have a tension headache. Or, you suddenly have angina-like chest pain.
That’s when your self-diagnosis becomes real. You become a “believer,” and it’s all downhill from there. That’s when, actually, the pain becomes amusing; and once you can sincerely laugh at it and yourself, you’ll know you have it nailed.
One last thing: but what about the fact that spinal surgery works for some? For the same reason sugar pills work for some. The placebo effect is well documented and very real. What’s likely happening is that subjects sincerely believe cutting away some tiny part of a vertebrae will give their pimple-pinched nerve more “room,” and it won’t cause pain anymore. This belief, for some, is tantamount to understanding the Sarno process, which minimally requires suspension of disbelief; so bang, no more pain. The downside is, what happens if the pain eventually comes back—which happens for the vast majority of those who’ve had spinal surgery? What happens is they become one of those people you all known, who’ve had 4, 5, 6 and more back surgeries.
So, I’m glad I finally decided that I was once again going to forget about surgery, and go full force with Sarno; and this time, it took 2 days. I’m 100% pain free 95% of the time since yesterday. Took a drive in my X-5 for lunch a bit ago (I was barely leaving the house weeks ago). That’s the seat that causes me the most excruciating pain no matter how I adjust it. Got in and bang! There’s that pain. I smiled, laughed a bit, said something like “nope, you’re not going to get me,” and by the time the light turned green, it was beginning to fad away and soon was a mere shadow.
And, when I got back in the car to return, less shadow still.
This shit works. But hopefully, like me, you’ll find that a combined process, so that 1) you get some temporary relief, and 2) understand the true purpose of that relief (to affirm what’s going on) will greatly accelerate your recovery over a Sarno-only approach.