I have been a postural therapist for 12+ years and worked with thousands of people experiencing chronic pain symptoms. Most of my clients already tried standard medical practices. Their doctors performed an MRI or X-Ray providing detailed imaging illustrating what’s wrong. They prescribed injections, medication, physical therapy, or in extreme cases surgery to attempt to fix the site of the problem. In some cases, the pain was better for a short period of time, but often continued to persist in one form or another.
Western medicine saves lives and is amazing at treating emergencies with antibiotics, immunizations, and in life-threatening cases, surgery. Our medical practices have a vital place in our healthcare system; however, they also have limitations. Our medical system is mainly symptom driven and teaches us that our pain is purely structural. This old model of pain and disease must be modified for the health crisis in this country to improve.
Research has shown that stenosis, bulging discs, and arthritis are not what cause pain. In fact, you can take two people with the same structural abnormalities shown on an MRI and one will have pain and one will not. Why do you think that is? Furthermore, why do millions of people with chronic pain not show current tissue damage? As a postural therapist, I have seen people who are structurally misaligned yet have very little pain. I have also seen people whose alignment isn’t all that bad with a great deal of pain. This generates the question, “What truly causes pain?”
I have witnessed clients come in for a session asserting their knee pain is due to a lack of cartilage or their shoulder pain is due to a rotator cuff tear; however, we are able to relieve the pain within the session. Did the structural abnormality heal within the hour? Probably not…. What more likely happened is we realigned the body, released muscular tension patterns, and freed up blood and oxygen to flow to the symptomatic areas.
The idea that pain stems from injury or damage is deeply ingrained in Western consciousness. The pain may begin from an accident or activity, but when it lingers and becomes chronic it’s more likely due to a condition causing tension in the muscular system. These tension patterns can often be resolved using physical modalities, but we must also look at how emotional states influence the nervous system and muscular patterns.
Our brain becomes wired with protective mechanisms stemming from past experiences. This physiological reaction is important and without it we probably would not live long; however, these danger signals have the tendency to get activated and stuck. For example, the more often a certain type of pain is triggered, the easier it becomes for the brain to replicate it. . An example of this is phantom limb pain. Amputees often report pain in a limb that’s not there. There is obviously no physical damage triggering the pain and we can’t apply physical treatments to a limb that’s not
present; however, in many cases, doctors have used methods to trick the brain, thereby alleviating the pain.
The medical profession doesn’t consider our psychology to play a significant role in causing physical disorders; however emotions such as fear and anxiety have such a profound physiological response that they can cause panic attacks so severe they mimic a heart attack. A hostile thought can build up enough energy to cause the body to heat up and get flushed with anger. If you are being threatened physically or psychologically, it will cause the body to contract in fear. In fact, MRI’s show that the brain can’t tell the difference between emotions such as rejection and physical pain. ,
Physical, emotional, and mental stress cause physiological changes in muscle tension, nerve firing, breathing, and blood flow which over time will affect your posture and alignment. This does not mean anything is “structurally” wrong or that you are “broken.” We can influence the muscular system to move the body back into alignment, provided we address the root dysfunction and not focus on the symptom or site of the pain with medication, injections, or surgery.
John Sarno’s book Healing Back Pain was a New York Times best seller, and his approach has cured thousands of people, yet mainstream medicine still debates whether to consider his practices legitimate. In his books, Sarno speaks of a psychological condition that causes symptoms such as chronic back pain, migraines, fibromyalgia, and gastrointestinal problems. He calls this Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS). Sarno believes when we are under emotional stress or repressing our emotions, the autonomic nervous system enters a state of reduced blood flow (ischemia) where the blood vessels become constricted and the tissues are deprived of oxygen, Over time he claims this can cause pain, numbness, tingling and weakness in the tissues.
TMS typically occurs with “chronic” pain symptoms; defined as symptoms that linger long after an injury has healed; however, it’s certainly not responsible for all pain. It’s not responsible for structural issues such as broken bones, torn ligaments, and other acute injuries, although you may be at higher risk for these injuries if you are simultaneously experiencing TMS. If you are physically injured, the body needs time to heal. The brain works to protect the area creating pain and a lack of mobility so you don’t injure yourself further.
Many other bodily reactions to tension and anxiety are the result of abnormal autonomic reactions and TMS such as peptic ulcers, colitis, tension headaches, TMJ, and migraines. Sarno maintains, when we repress emotions, the blood vessels need only be constricted a small amount to cause less blood to reach the area and tissues to be oxygen deprived. It’s understandable why many people use heat and deep massage to help alleviate pain, as these modalities stimulate blood flow. Movement practices also work wonders to increase blood flow and oxygen, yet many people still depend on medication and injections for treatment of these conditions.
When we experience trauma to the body, we often build scar tissue or compensatory patterns as a result of these past injuries. Just as physical compensations can occur in the body, so do compensatory emotional patterns. For example, if a child is emotionally shamed, they may shift into a restricted posture, or repress emotions which will cause a state of tension in the nervous system. An overactive nervous system may respond by producing physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach issues, muscle tension, back pain, etc. At any point the nervous system can hit a tipping point and begin a cycle of chronic pain. The brain then becomes protective, detecting danger ,and triggering a pain response even when no true danger is present.
So how do we retrain the nervous system to feel safe again once an initial physical or emotional issue has been removed? There are many ways to re-educate the nervous system, but the most vital aspect is to treat the “whole” person and not focus on the symptom. It’s also important that the modality you engage in is self-empowering. Becoming an active part of your healing process is often mandatory for long-term health. Finally, whatever approach used, we must take the focus off the pain and focus on what the body and mind can do to heal.
There are many methods out there designed to rebalance the nervous system, realign the joints, and release muscular tension thereby restoring oxygen to the tissues. The approaches we use do not treat the pain or the symptom. We do not see the body as damaged; instead we look for where the body is out of alignment or holding tension. We simultaneously address stress levels, sleep, nutrition, activity levels, nervous system imbalances and offer physical and emotional support. We educate and empower our clients in their healing process. Addressing all these variables in conjunction with re educating the mind to understand the biological processes of pain has been proven very successful in reducing chronic pain symptoms without drugs, manipulation, injections or surgery.
As Eastern Medicine has maintained since ancient times, it’s the integration of physical, emotional, and mental health that creates a balanced body. You may find you need to address all these aspects to fully heal from chronic pain.
We must remember the following points if we are going to re-wire our brain to release a pain cycle:
1. KNOWLEDGE GIVES YOU POWER: You must begin to understand the biological processes of pain. This education is linked with a decrease in symptoms, improved function, reduced fear, improved mobility, and a balanced nervous system.
2. PAIN IS DESIGNED TO PROTECT: It helps us survive by acting as a danger signal. Pain motivates us to take it easy when tissues need to rest and heal. Pain is designed to keep you safe and can be very important; however, it’s also important to recognize when you are stuck in a chronic pain cycle that is no longer serving its purpose.
3. PAIN IS NOT JUST A PHYSICAL EXPERIENCE: Old models taught us that pain is caused by physical damage to the body. We must begin to recognize that this is just one of many factors.
4. ALL PAIN ORIGINATES IN THE BRAIN: The pain system is sophisticated and makes high-level decisions. All pain originates in the brain. Your brain is always calling the shots and deciding how much pain to let you experience. Although pain is in your head it is very real. What’s important to recognize, is that you can have severe symptoms without structural damage. Understanding this is critical to influencing the pain cycle.
5. PAIN IS AN OPINION NOT A FACT: Your brain determines how much pain you should experience in each moment to protect you. First assess whether there is “current” tissue damage. Then ask yourself, how much are you focusing on the pain? How afraid are you of the pain? How much are you trying to control the pain? In many cases the brain keeps producing pain even when the structural issue heals depending on how you interpret it.
6. TO GET RID OF PAIN YOU HAVE TO TREAT THE BRAIN: The way you experience pain has to do with how you interpret the signal. Even if it started as a structural injury, at some point it may be important to open yourself to a bio psychosocial model.
For assistance in your journey, visit my website at:
The following documentary provides a deeper understanding of
Sarno’s work: All The Rage
Lisa Decker holds a master’s degree in Human Movement and has12+ years as a postural and movement therapist. She is a certified postural alignment specialist through Egoscue Institute. She’s also certified in Foundation Training and has a 3-year certification in Medical Qigong. Lisa is also a certified personal trainer, corrective exercise specialist and performance enhancement specialist.
John Sarno: Healing Back Pain
James Nestor: Breath