My pain started over four years ago when I took up hot yoga. My health was trending upward, and I finally felt well enough to do more than walk to the end of the block. I loved the yoga. Then the pain started. Then it worsened, despite my using every modification in the book. Finally, I quit yoga.
And then I suffered and suffered and suffered. Nothing except ice and not moving seemed to help.
My low back pain (right sacro-iliac pain, to be specific) was moderately severe–not quite so bad I wanted to die, but severe enough to interfere with every part of my life. Work, play, hobbies, moving, sitting, sleeping, sex, you name it. I was deeply discouraged.
I have fantastic news, though: I only have 5% of that pain left. After trying all the conventional and typical options out there, I finally found three tools that worked wonders.
So what are they?
What Didn’t Work
First, let’s take a look at what didn’t work:
- Half a dozen chiropractors and their devices, like a sacro-iliac stabilizing belt (note: chiropractic did help occasional acute neck and back pain, but not my chronic SI pain)
- Weeks and weeks of physical therapy (including Feldenkrais), followed by months of continuing the training at home
- 10 sessions of Rolfing
- 20+ sessions of acupuncture (although acupuncture did help some other issues of mine)
- Exercise–personal training, Pilates, yoga (obviously), stretching, etc
- Anti-inflammatory diets–gluten free, dairy free, blah blah blah
- Anti-inflammatory supplements–fish oils, turmeric, etc
- Prednisone pack (2nd to last resort)
- Steroid injection (last resort)
- Pain relievers–ingested and topical (beyond last resort, and I only made it 3 days on them, ugh)
Yeah, I tried a lot over those years of distress. Some of these treatments are perfectly good; they might help others, just not me. Others were not good, not good at all.
Like the crazy side effects I got from the steroid injection–intense hot flashes and night sweats for 2 weeks. You know, typical stuff. (Did I mention the injection didn’t do a darn thing to relieve my pain?) The pain management specialist said my side effects would be expected for someone on their 4th or 5th round of injections, not their first. Steroids are no joke for those of us who are extremely sensitive.
The First Thing That Worked
I’m just going to cover my first breakthrough today, a book called Back Sense. I discovered it thanks to Micki Fine, psychotherapist and mindfulness instructor extraordinaire, who taught the 8-week mindfulness-based stress reductions (MBSR) class my husband and I took together. Was that class ever life-changing!
I’d been in pain for well over a year at this point and pretty desperate, so I picked up the book soon after the class ended and devoured it.
The Back Sense theory goes something like this:
1) You hurt yourself. (Often it starts spontaneously, after you “lifted a box wrong,” even though you’ve lifted it that way for years.)
2) The pain negatively affects your life.
3) You (understandably) have negative feelings about this.
4) Your muscles involuntarily tighten in ways you don’t perceive.
5) The muscle tension creates very real pain.
6) It negatively affects your life . . .
7) You have negative feelings about this.
and on and on it goes.
The authors never suggest that the pain is in your head. The pain is very, very real. Muscle tension can cause an extraordinary amount of pain–and without you ever noticing a difference in your body.
I’ll admit, I was pretty convinced I had a “real” problem. It couldn’t be “just” muscle tension. Or could it? The evidence they presented in the first chapter was compelling enough that I was willing to try out their theory.
(Consider, for example, a study of thousands of people demonstrating that people who have never had back pain have the exact same spinal abnormalities as those who do have chronic back pain, the very same subluxations and slipped/pinched/damaged discs that are blamed for the pain. It’s just that until researchers did those studies, no one was taking thousands of x-rays of people with no complaints! Huh.)
I began to apply my new mindfulness techniques to my back pain in specific ways. I discovered some surprising things:
- Whenever I felt any sensation at all anywhere near my SI join, I immediately assumed it was “pain!” Once I began to notice those moments as they happened, I tried to explore the sensations with curiosity and openness. Lo and behold, much of the time, the sensation could best be described as tingling, twinge, or tightness–not exactly pain. My knee-jerk reaction was “pain!” but it was often an inaccurate one. I’d just become so afraid of the pain that I’d distanced myself from real experiences in the SI area.
- I spent a lot of time thinking about my pain and about what I couldn’t do. I also spent a lot of time thinking about a pain-filled future and all the things I wouldn’t be able to do then either.
- My pain didn’t always follow “the rules.” That is, it was sometimes much worse than it “should” have been (based on what I had or hadn’t done), and other times much milder than it “should” have been, according to my ideas about what made it worse.
Well, let me tell you, if you interpret every sensation as pain, dwell on your pain both present and (imagined) future, and abide by restrictive rules to avoid pain regardless of the evidence for them, you are going to be in A LOT OF PAIN.
Our thoughts are very powerful. I’m not talking woo woo here; I’m talking physiological fact. Our feelings and emotions always have a chemical and electrical side. Thinking stressful thoughts triggers real reactions in the body, including muscle tension. (As a side note, this is one of the biggest factors in pelvic floor dysfunction/hypertonic pelvic floor, which is a REAL stinker to fix. Ask me how I know.) That muscle tension can really bite you in the butt, er, back.
So I started following the steps in the book for recovery. And it worked. It reduced my pain by 75%. Seventy-five percent, people! Wow. It was shocking. Thrilling. Freeing.
I will forever be grateful to the authors, Siegel, Urdang, and Johnson, all of them recovered chronic back pain sufferers themselves. Thank you, gentlemen.
If you have chronic back or neck pain–or any chronic pain, really–this book could change your life. The premise can be hard to accept, that there might not be anything truly wrong with your body anymore, even if there was an initial injury (though often chronic back or neck pain appears out of the blue!). If you’re desperate enough, though, you might be able to give their theory a trial run. I’m glad I did.
Now, in my case, there really was underlying dysfunction, and I suspect that’s true for a lot of people. Our lifestyles produce enormous physical dysfunction. (More about that later on.) BUT only 25% of the pain I experienced was from the real underlying problem. The rest of it, while not “all in my head,” was nevertheless caused by the ways I interpreted my experiences and thought about my life and pain.
The mind, conscious and unconscious, is so powerful. Why not tap into that power for healing?
Next up: Tool #2. Shhh. It’s a surprise.
What about you? Do you, or have you, suffered from chronic pain? What works for you?
This October, I’m writing (nearly) every day about holistic healing, but you know, I’ve got a baby and life is unpredictable. I’m just doing my best!