God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. Genesis 1:31
I’ve never written anything personal on my blog but I feel compelled to share my story of incredible healing from debilitating back pain because I can’t refrain from testifying to God’s goodness and faithfulness to me, as well as to the truths about God’s creation that have been revealed to my humble self. I also share this in hopes that I can help others. And, because God works in mysterious ways, I have a Victorian mind to thank for my healing. So here goes – my astounding, at times almost unbelievable, journey down the rabbit hole and back (to borrow from another Victorian).
In the beginning of August 2017, I woke up the morning after a soccer game with a sore back. This was not particularly surprising because the previous six weeks I had not been physically active due to a random foot injury, so I figured I was simply out of shape and didn’t think too much more about it. The soreness surprisingly lingered, but when the time came around for my game the following week, I played again, since the back pain hadn’t bothered me during the last game. My back didn’t bother me during this game either.
However, I lived through a bizarre experience this game whose relevance to this story will become clearer later. I was standing on the field, with no players around me, when all of a sudden a feeling of dread and anxiousness came over me, my heart began to race and I began to feel nauseated. I thought I might either throw up or pass out then and there on the field. I was so overcome with a panic entirely unrelated to the current situation that I could not figure out what was going on, I’d played soccer for twenty-four years, in much more competitive situations, and I’d never felt this kind of anxiety before. The only diagnosis I could come up with, based on the predominant feeling of panic, was that I was having some sort of panic attack. And yet this answer made no sense to me. Panic attacks were for people in stressful situations, unable to cope with the pressures of reality, I thought. That did not describe my situation at all. How could a person be randomly seized with panic in an unstressful situation? Not to mention I have never been a particularly anxious person. I felt very angry.
As I was rationalizing thus with myself and had just decided I would sub off the field with the explanation that I was not feeling well, the situation grew more bizarre as the whole feeling of panic completely dissipated, as suddenly as it had come, along with all physical symptoms, and I played the rest of the game normally, without a hint of what had transpired. It was exceedingly unnerving to feel almost sick one moment and then fine the next, and an unsettled feeling remained.
The next morning when I woke up, my back was sore again, this time worse than before. I put icy hot gels on it and massaged it, all to no avail. At some point around this time I wore my toddler on my back in a baby carrier, which worsened my discomfort. When it came time for my next soccer game, my back was so sore I wasn’t sure what I should do, as thus far it had not actually hurt when I was playing, just after. I decided to try and play, but take it easy and play it by ear. If my back started to hurt during the game, I would come off.
This time, sure enough, my back began to hurt during the game. I decided I had better stop playing. The ball was coming to me and I planned after this last play to come off. I went to kick the ball and upon impact I felt, or heard – maybe both – several alarming snaps or pops in my back. Now I’ve done it, I thought. The pain increased significantly and I limped off the field. I went home and lay on the couch, joking to my husband about how I had messed up my back. I wasn’t seriously worried at this point, as people appeared to “throw out” their backs all the time and continue on with life. Indeed, my three siblings and my mother had had back problems and lived to tell the tale. My brother even continued to play soccer. I figured I would get the necessary treatment or do whatever was required so that I could play soccer again. That was actually my main worry – when would I be able to play soccer again?
But now my troubles really began, for my back continued to plague me with annoying pain and discomfort, particularly on the lower right side. I continually felt as though I had been bending over shovelling snow for eight hours the previous day. But worse than this was the extreme discomfort I experienced just sitting in a chair. I could not sit comfortably in a chair whatsoever. It felt as though my back was totally out of alignment.
Where do you turn when your back is out of alignment? The chiropractor, of course. I dreaded this because I had never liked going to the chiro, to which my mother had taken me as a child, and I have always been very skeptical of the science behind the chiropractic method. But I didn’t know where else to turn, being desperate for relief.
The chiro I went to sent me for an x-ray first, which frighteningly showed my lower spine curving toward my right hip, as well as one vertebrae in my mid back looking uneven. The x-ray clinched it for me that my back was out of alignment and I would need spinal adjustments to get it straightened out.
The chiropractic adjustments seemed to give a little relief at times, but the neck adjustments in particular were very painful, which the chiropractor said was from me tensing up too much. I dreaded going there.
An odd event occurred once at an appointment. I asked the chiro for some exercises to strengthen my back, and he suggested squats and had me perform some to check my posture. I could not perform a proper squat and almost lost my balance, which the chiropractor said was due to my poor form and that this was what could have led to my back problems. This was bizarre because I had been working out and doing squats since I was a teenager. How did my back get so stiff and tight I couldn’t squat?
The good news was, the chiro said that perhaps I could be playing soccer in six weeks or so. However, eventually the neck adjustments became too painful and he seemed impatient with my lack of progress. But somehow, after I came back from a vacation, my back felt significantly better and I decided to drop the chiro and try physiotherapy instead. My reasoning was that my back must be straightened out now, since the pain was reduced and I could sit more comfortably in a chair, and I wanted to work specifically at strengthening my back muscles to make my back strong again so as to prevent further injury. I attempted jogging once but it made my back sore so I quit. This was about mid to end of September, about 6 weeks or so after my lower back pain first presented itself.
The physiotherapist seemed very thorough, and, like the chiropractor, did all kinds of strength tests, showing me how my right leg was weaker, as I couldn’t lift it very high. This seemed odd to me, because like most right-handed people, my right leg had always been stronger, and, as it was my striking foot in soccer and therefore received the biggest workout, it didn’t make sense to me for it to be weaker. But the physio said that muscle imbalances lead to injury, and that you need to properly and thoroughly strengthen your whole body if you want to play a physically demanding sport like soccer. He also, as had the chiro, heavily emphasized the role of poor posture in muscle imbalances and injuries. He instructed me to sit straight up at all times, always maintaining an arch in my lower back, using a rolled-up towel if necessary. Both physicians strongly emphasized that arching your back forward or slouching were terrible for your back.
At this point I was beginning to feel a little irresponsible for the way I had treated my back. I had always just exercised however I’d felt like it – I’d never consistently done any back-specific exercises and I’d definitely never paid any attention to the way I sat. I slouched on couches all the time and liked to sit cross-legged with my back hunched while playing with my children on the floor. The physio was also surprised to see me pushing a double stroller with a five-year-old and one-year-old in it without pain. Anyway, I trusted the physio’s diagnosis that “muscle imbalance” was causing pain in my right sacroiliac joint (which is on the lower right side of the back, next to the tailbone) and right quadratus lumborom muscle and faithfully did the recommended exercises to correct my back problems.
Initially it felt great to be working out again, but one of the exercises caused the pain to go down the outside of my legs, so the physio switched it to another one. I also, for the first time, began to experience pain pushing my stroller. In fact, one time, the pain was so severe I wasn’t sure I could make it the last 100 metres to my house and had my kids get out and walk. That was the end of pushing my stroller. I also began religiously sitting with a towel rolled up in the small of my back.
But none of this helped. In fact, I only got worse. I woke one morning with an extremely painful lower back spasm, so bad that I had to lie down just to cope. I put a heating pad on it which helped disperse the intensity, but I was still in rough shape – the worse yet. I had pain radiating down the outsides of both legs, lower back pain, extreme discomfort sitting in a chair again, and now, to top it off, I began feeling nauseated and light-headed. I spent much of that weekend just lying on the couch with my eyes closed.
For the first time since my back pain had started, I began to really worry. There must be something seriously wrong with my back if the pain had spread to my legs and other symptoms such as nausea and light-headedness had appeared. I had also begun to feel fatigued. I began to wonder – did I have some kind of neurological problem? My spirits began to sink at this point.
My husband and I concluded that this physiotherapist must be totally incompetent, as not only had he not been able to improve my symptoms, he actually caused more to appear. Now, getting fit enough to play soccer again was hardly even in the picture. I just wanted to be able to live my life without daily pain and discomfort.
At this point I decided to see my family physician to get an opinion from an actual doctor. She said the standard recommendation for back pain today was to keep moving – bed rest was outdated advice. While I was reassured to hear that physical activity was good for my back, it was also frustrating to hear because the number of activities I was able to do without pain was decreasing. I was unable to run, work out or push my stroller without pain. Disappointingly, the doctor said the three treatment options open to me were the chiropractor, physiotherapist or osteopath, the third with which neither of us was too familiar. Since I had seemed to have the most success with the chiropractor, I decided to try it again, but this time try somebody different, perhaps with a little more experience – and who was more gentle. The doctor also gave me a prescription of extra-strength anti-inflammatories, which I took but with little intention of filling out as I do not like to take medication.
I did some research and found a popular and reputable female chiropractor who had been practicing for over 30 years. Furthermore, she claimed not to do any rough spinal adjustments but used a gentle tool called an “Activator.” Surely, a physician who has been practicing for over 30 years in the area of back pain would know what they are talking about and would be able to help me, I thought.
The chiropractor seemed friendly and knowledgeable. She looked at my spinal x-rays and pointed out the tilt in my spine, as well as the uneven vertebrae near the top of my back. She told me a surprising thing, which was that I actually had a form of spinal bifida (which was news to me). She claimed she had done her master’s thesis on this very defect. She then had me watch an alarming video on the chiropractic philosophy of the spine, which basically goes as follows: your spinal vertebrae, which are stacked in a column from your tailbone to your skull, are very vulnerable to damage and every collision, fall or jarring impact to your body over the years, from when you were a very small child to now, causes damage and degeneration to the spine over time, pushing vertebrae out of place. The video showed many sports collisions, children falling etc. and the impression I was left with after watching was that sports are extremely dangerous and bad for you and I was lucky that after playing soccer for 24 years to have had as few injuries as I had had. No wonder I had such back pain. I couldn’t help feeling extremely foolish and irresponsible. I was a mother now – what was I doing playing high-intensity sports? A horrific x-ray chart on the wall in the chiro office showed the degeneration of the spine with associated symptoms. In stage two degeneration, nausea, which I had, was listed as a symptom. The chiro told me nausea was common with back pain as each vertebrae is connected to different organs of the body, such as the digestive system etc. The description under stage four degeneration was basically paralysis leading to death.
She also told me about bulging discs using a model spine with a frightening-looking red bulge between the L3 and L4 vertebrae. Discs sit between the vertebrae, cushioning them and giving you flexibility in your torso to bend forward and back, side to side. When too much pressure is exerted on them, through a collision or improper posture, the fluid inside them can bulge out, and this fluid presses on nerves (also called “pinched nerve”) which run all the way down your leg, causing leg pain (physicians often liken a herniated, bulging or protuded disc to a ruptured “jelly donut”).
She then had me perform a range of movements and showed me that I had extreme weakness in my right leg (as the physio had also noticed). She also did a “bulging disc test” (which is a standard test physicians of many kinds perform) where you lie on your back, lift your leg and your head, and pull your toes toward you. She said that if I felt pain doing this, that that was proof of a pinched nerve. If I had tingling or numbness, that was a sign of nerve damage and was very bad. Wouldn’t you know it but my foot went numb and tingly when she did this, at which she seemed surprised. I was horrified. I could not believe how badly my body had deteriorated.
The chiropractor also tested my SI joints by having me stand and lift each knee to my chest, which I could barely do, particularly with the right. I could barely get my right knee up to waist level. She said I had “hypomobility” of the SI joint, which means the ligament was tight and not moving very well. She said this was better than “hypermobility,” where there is laxity in the joint from being overstretched, a condition that can’t be undone. It was somewhat relieving to know I had the better of two bad conditions.
The actual treatment itself was very gentle and easy, which was a great relief. And I felt immediate relief upon going home. I began to feel more normal than I had felt in awhile; even the nausea was gone. She prescribed three visits per week for three months, and then re-evaluation from there. She emphasized that I was not to ever arch or bend my back forward, to sit up straight with a towel or something in the small of my back at all times, to stop lifting heavy things and to take it easy and rest my body. Ligaments and discs, because they do not receive a lot of blood flow, take a long time to heal, sometimes many months. She said that perhaps I had not healed because I had been exerting myself too much, and the physiotherapy exercises, being too vigorous, had only made it worse. What I needed was rest. And ice, she said. Ice your back like crazy – it’s full of inflammation, she said.
And this seemed like wisdom to me. Surely I had been foolish in not being more careful with my body. I had been pushing strollers, lifting my toddler, playing soccer and doing all kinds of things without a second thought as to what it was doing to my body. Surely the reason why I had not healed was because I had not truly rested my back. (Looking back now, I see how conflicting the medical advice I had received truly was – one physician recommended physical activity while another rest!) However, resting my back was the one “treatment” I had not tried, and really, it was all that was left to me. So again, I dutifully followed the latest physician’s advice and determined to completely rest my back.
I knew what the biggest stress on my back was: lifting my almost two-year-old several times a day. So I rigged it up so he was able to climb into his high chair, crib and onto his change table by himself. I completely stopped lifting him. I stopped pushing strollers or lifting anything remotely heavy, and began lying on the couch several times a day with ice under my back. I did everything I could possibly do reduce all strain on my back. If resting was going to heal my back, then I was going to undertake this endeavour thoroughly.
Accomplishing all this was not without its costs, of course. The activities I could do were greatly reduced, and I spent a lot of the day lying on the couch, which is no fun. But worst of all was having to tell a crying, curly-haired cherub that mommy can’t pick him up anymore. I believed what I was doing was for the best of both of us, and that I was being a good mother by trying to get well. But I have to admit some tears welled up in my eyes the first time it occurred to me that my son had ceased asking for “up” (one of the few words he could even say) for quite some time. He knew the answer would be no. For some time, even after my back healed, a bitterness remained in my heart about this. I can never get those months back.
The pattern I experienced attending chiropractic appointments went like this: I would go in there, sore as anything, and walking out feeling major relief. But as the day wore on, my back pain and discomfort creeped back some. However, it did generally feel like I was getting better overall, just at a very slow and gradual pace. During a weekend away with just my husband, while the grandparents were watching the kids, my back felt significantly better. In fact, I felt comfortable most of the day. Finally, I thought, the chiropractic appointments were starting to pay off. When I came back home though, my back acted up while I tried to mop the floor, and so I immediately stopped. My husband chastised me for not taking it easier and I agreed to try my best not to overdo it. So I eliminated another activity from my life: cleaning my house.
Around this time, all the caring and well-meaning people around me, who, like any kind people who desire to help those who are suffering, tried to do everything that might strain my back for me, as well as encouraged me to take it as easy as possible and just focus on resting. I tried to comply the best I could, and obviously, I too wanted to get better. And every time my back flared up, we tried to figure out what I had done that day to “overdo” things, and all I could do was concede that yes, I probably shouldn’t have done this or that, even though I was already doing as little as humanly possible. One time the only physical exertion I could think of that I had done that day was to scrape snow and ice off of the car at 6:30 am to get to my chiropractic appointment. I have to look back at this episode and laugh at the absurdity of worsening my condition in order to get treatment to improve my condition! And of course, who could have helped me at that hour, in the dark and frigid cold? Only in hindsight can I see the pit of helplessness I was in. No matter what I did, no matter how hard I tried, I had to daily own up to contually failing in my efforts because my back continued to get worse.
The sober truth of the matter was that I was becoming more and more of an invalid. I could literally do nothing. I lay down repeatedly throughout the day to ice my back. My chiropractor had given me the most basic, mild back strengthening exercises but I could not do them without pain. My husband and I began to seriously doubt the chiropractor, although we’d always had at least one foot out the door there, so to speak, regarding our faith in her methods. It was getting close to Christmas, which meant I had been receiving treatment with this practitioner for two months, and I could not definitively say I was better; if anything, I was worse. One might wonder why I didn’t quit the establishment completely, but the thing was, I could not deny the feeling of pain relief every time I walked out of there. And my nausea had also disappeared. If a treatment lessened pain and eliminated a symptom, it must be effective and be based on some kind of science, right? Who could argue with the experiential fact of symptom improvement? The physician must be doing something right; it must be that I’m not holding up my end of the bargain at home by straining my back too much. That was all I could conclude.
However, eventually my worsening state became undeniable, and I began to find that the pain relief following chiro adjustments had decreased in length sometimes to only an hour or so. It was ridiculous to drive to (and pay for) all these treatments when there was no lasting effect, no real change to my condition. But where was I to go now? I decided to try physiotherapy one more time.
Physiotherapy ended up not only being a disaster, but the beginning of a frightening spiral into unbelievable and horrific pain such as I have only experienced, incredible as it may sound, in child labour. In the actual appointment, the physiotherapist told me I had extremely tight muscles, and this was true; I could barely lift my leg to the height of a step to stretch my hamstring – that is, I could not lift my foot higher than about six inches off of the ground. She tried to stretch all my leg and back muscles, warning me that I may have a flare-up of symptoms afterward but, “no pain, no gain.” She believed, as did the chiro, that tight leg muscles can pull on the back, exacerbating back pain. The night after I saw her, or perhaps it was the next night, I can’t recall now, while I was lying in bed, my pain went through the roof. The back pain extended deep into my pelvis, which is I think why it reminded me especially of child labour, and I began to have leg tremors. My legs shook with spasms and I could not control them. For the first time I took anti-flammatories, and these settled down the pain. From this point on, I had back pain constantly, with excruciating flare-ups.
The Christmas holidays were spent miserably. I was in so much pain and discomfort and I felt sick and and just plain awful. My nausea returned. I tried anti-nausea tablets. I had heart palpitations and bouts of light-headedness. I saw doctors, had tests done, all returned healthy, no explanations given for any of it or how it was all connected.
I felt I was against a wall. I had tried so many physicians and treatments but I was worse off than ever. So I decided to take things into my own hands and do what many do when they have health questions – search the internet. Little did I know that this decision would send me both into the nadir of my suffering and lead me to my final cure.
I began searching “sacroiliac joint pain” and “herniated disc” exercises and treatments. I figured I would find my own way to strengthen my back and get myself moving without pain again. I discovered a physiotherapy approach to back pain called the Mackenzie method, which basically consists of back extensions (you lie on your stomach and lift your arms and shoulders, bending your back backward). The theory behind these exercises is that doing them can actually push the herniated disc back into the spine. Thousands of youtube videos and internet articles recommend even just lying on your stomach, propped up on your elbows, regularly throughout the day. These exercises seemed to bring real relief for the first time in a long time. They made sense to me, I could do them without much pain, and I hadn’t really tried them yet, so I did them religiously for a couple of weeks. Recommended exercises for SI joint pain gave me no relief, and actually, many of them involved bending your back forward, which is supposed to aggravate a herniated disc.
I have to pause here to mention what else I found when I began googling “sacroiliac joint pain” and “herniated disc” pain. What I found were stories of millions of people suffering from horrific levels of back pain, many for decades, people who had multiple surgeries, injections, implants etc. only to have the pain return in the same place or surface elsewhere. There seemed to be no cure for back pain. Once you got it, you suffered with it for life. If you were one of the lucky ones, you only had recurring episodes but could generally live your life; others suffered continuously and couldn’t work, or completely lost their standard of living. But the worst stories were of women with sacroiliac joint dysfunction, where their SI joint had been injured in an accident or through childbirth and now they had become almost invalids, as even walking produced great pain in that joint. There were blogs and facebook groups with testimonies of women suffering terribly from this condition, chasing after a myriad of treatments with no success. Most ended up trying cortisone injections into the joint. Some tried surgery, where metal rods are placed in the joint to stabilize it. I came across a centre in Georgia that is considered to be the leading specialist in SI joint dysfunction in the United States. And yet there were also stories of people who had no success there. I could go on; suffice it to say that the world of chronic pain as chronicled on the internet is appalling. I could only be thankful my condition hadn’t deteriorated as badly as some people’s had.
To return to the Mackenzie exercises – I performed these for a couple of weeks with some improvement, and began to feel a little hopeful. But one day as I was performing the exercises, I felt a sharp pain in one of my SI joints. I immediately stopped, feeling quite worried. A little while later, I felt a sharp pain in the other SI joint. From then on, the SI joint pain magnified severely in intensity, and one day as my parents left after visiting, all I could do was lie on my bed and try and breathe through the pain as it escalated to yet greater heights than I had experienced, unbelievably. Over the next couple of weeks (this was January) I became unable to use the stairs and began to just lie in bed more and more, just resting my back. We figured I must have re-injured my back and I needed to drop everything and just rest. So somehow, although the details are a little fuzzy now, I became bedridden and my mother stayed with us during the week to look after the kids. And now I became one of the frightening stories I had read about on the internet – my condition had deteriorated basically as badly as it could.
The period I spent lying in bed lasted almost six weeks. I should mention that around Christmas time I had begun having massages on my back, and these brought me amazing relief, which unfortunately, like everything else, did not last. But now, however, I lived on these as they were the only treatment for relief I could find, along with a personal TENS unit I purchased. I could hardly get up or down the stairs or in and out of the car, but somehow I managed to limp to these appointments. I would stand up from the massage table feeling incredible and just wishing desperately I could feel like this all the time. I also saw my doctor again and we begged them to send me to a specialist so I could get some help from someone, somewhere. The family doctor referred me to a sports medicine doctor, as well as to a therapist at one of the leading physiotherapy places in the city. I learned at that doctor’s visit that there are various levels of physiotherapy qualifications, and that therapists vary in their expertise. As I told her my story and how I had failed to find anyone who could help me, she suggested that the ones I had seen were perhaps not very qualified. She assured me she was sending me to one of the most reputable physiotherapy places in the city, and the particular therapist I would be seeing specialized in the pelvis and hips, and had the highest qualifications. Finally, I thought, I will get the help I need.
Or so I hoped anyway. As we drove to the physio appointment, I felt very anxious. This was it. I would be seeing a leading specialist in my condition. She HAD to be able to help me. But what if she couldn’t? Where was I to go next? Was I doomed to a life of chronic pain? I was only 32 – how did I even get here? I kicked a ball and now my life is over? Not only did I have pain in my back and down my legs, but in my right hip, and also at night I would wake up with stabbing pains or a pins-and-needles feeling in the outsides of my arms. I had tried so many things already and I was running out of options, and all the while my condition was deteriorating worse and worse. Literally, this person, and the sports medicine doctor, were going to be my last stops. I knew what would be suggested if physio didn’t work – injections and surgery, which I did not want to even consider, although many, many people had asked me right from the beginning if I was going to be getting back surgery. I had heard and read of enough people’s stories to know that back surgery is a total gamble. Many people are not helped by it all, and those that are, are rarely able return to their previous standard of living.
In the physio’s office I couldn’t stop the tears as I told her my history. I told her I didn’t know where else to go if she couldn’t help me. She was very sympathetic and understanding. But more importantly, she helped change my trajectory of thinking about my condition, and almost, almost set me on the right road to healing. She told me something no one had ever suggested to me before, and that was that my original back injury had probably healed long ago and that I was stuck in a chronic pain rut. When someone is in pain for a long time, she explained, the nervous system becomes more efficient at sending pain signals to the brain, and the brain almost becomes addicted to these signals. This was the most hopeful diagnosis I had ever heard from any professional because it meant that I might not actually be injured. There might not actually be anything structurally wrong with me, pain aside. She told me there is nothing wrong with bending my back forward, and she tried to have me do it in her office. But I couldn’t. I had not bent over in about five months, at all. I had been led to believe by previous physicians, especially chiropractors, that bending over is absolutely horrible for your back, and so I had obediently stopped, completely. If never arching your back forward should be great and healthy for your back, I should have had the best back in the world. But I didn’t; in fact, my back was worse for all my perfect attention to posture, and I couldn’t help but admit that this physio may be right and that I should regularly begin bending my back forward again.
But where this physician led me, devastatingly, to yet another dead end was in her recommended treatment: more physiotherapy. More exercises to strengthen the back, the legs, the glutes, the abs etc etc and on and on. Her treatment, unfortunately, contradicted her diagnosis. If there was no actual injury, and the problem was in the nervous system, what was physical therapy supposed to do, exactly? And really, her diagnosis itself was confusing as well, because she also said that my extreme muscle weakness prevented her from truly testing my SI joint, to see if it actually was “hyper” or “hypo” mobile (over- or under-stretched). Therefore, the spectre of possible injury or damage still lingered. (I also wondered, too, why I didn’t have pain in my elbows even though they were hyper-extended). She also said that if she was unable to help me, she would pass me on to a rheumatologist. I knew what rheumatologists diagnosed – conditions like fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis. I tried to do the exercises, and, as with every other treatment I had tried, I saw improvement at first, only to have the pain come back with a vengeance. I actually believed I re-herniated my disc. Bending my back forward brought on massive pain. So I stopped seeing this physician. I could not perform any of her exercises without pain – not even squeezing my abdominal muscles. Another dead end.
The last stop on my merry-go-round of physicians and treatments was the sports medicine doctor. When I shuffled into the building in which his office was located, my heart sank. It was a physiotherapy clinic. I had already tried every back, leg, abdominal and pelvic strengthening exercise under the sun! I knew this appointment was going to be useless. The doctor gave a very brief diagnosis of SI joint dysfunction, and said my only options left were injections or surgery, the latter of which he couldn’t recommend without seeing an MRI, which I was still waiting on. He also gave me a prescription for an extra-strength inflammatory, which he said worked a little differently than the one I was on, and that I might find better success with it.
I went home dejected, of course. That said, the new anti-inflammatory seemed to work better, and that, along with trying bravely to believe that perhaps my back was not as badly injured as I thought and that I had to try to recondition myself to normal activities, enabled me to move around the house more, and even go out to church once.
One night I had a terrible flare-up which was quite discouraging. I had begun to notice that stress seemed to exacerbate my pain, but what could I do about it? I couldn’t stop or control the pain. I also noticed bizarre things, such as that sometimes, if the pain wasn’t too bad, I didn’t notice it when I was on my smart phone, and that I had begun reaching for that device more and more as an escape. I began reading more on the internet about chronic pain, and many articles supported what the physio had said, that the brain can become conditioned to expect pain. If my brain could sometimes ignore pain when it was really distracted, like when on my phone, why couldn’t I try and decondition myself to pain through mental discipline? What other option did I have, anyway? Surgery? How does surgery just make pain go away? Is that a scientifically sound method of healing? Did I have structural damage or not? Not only did no structural treatment seem to help but no treatment really made sense. As a literature major, science has never been my forte and I felt powerless to reject the diagnoses and question the treatments I had been given. But in my mind I wondered, how could someone get worse and worse, never better? Why are my muscles so tight I can hardly lift my legs off the ground? How could simply kicking a ball, which I had done thousands of times in my life before, send me into debilitating and never-ending pain in the SI joint, when the worst stress that joint had ever received was childbirth (twice), which said events left me with no lingering pain at all? Wasn’t having your back manipulated with force by a chiropractor a great stress on your back? Why did that not damage your back then?
As I was reading about chronic pain and reflecting on all these things, I decided, on a whim, to go on amazon and look up the top-rated books on back pain. There were a variety of best-selling books on back pain, most of which prescribed exercises. There is a famous back specialist at the university of Waterloo who has a book called Back Mechanic. You can guess what that book is about. There is another best-selling book called Crooked which scathingly critiques the back medical industry; but the author’s recommended treatment for those in back pain is seeing the Back Mechanic guy, or some other “back whisperer” physiotherapist. Not for me.
But the book ranked number one on amazon appeared totally different. It was called Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection by Dr. John E. Sarno, with the tagline: “Without drugs, without surgery, without exercise: back pain can be stopped forever.” I normally would not give this kind of book, which seemed a new-age, mind-body, emotional-wholeness kind of book a second thought – as if the pain was all in my head or I had an emotional problem! – except that, first of all, he was an actual M.D., and not some naturopath or homeopath, and, secondly, the reviews were insane. On amazon.ca and amazon.com people left hundreds of five-star reviews, claiming unbelievable testimonies of complete healing from years and even decades, in some instances, of debilitating back pain, even after surgeries and injections, and begging and pleading other people to buy this book with the promise that just reading it could completely heal you. Could they be real? I couldn’t suppress my curiosity and so I decided to read more about Dr. Sarno online. I came across the website thankyoudrsarno and read in disbelief about people once bedridden now playing sports, once using walkers and wheelchairs now climbing mountains. I am an extremely skeptical person, as everybody is nowadays, in the age of marketing, where yogurt cups promise heaven, and hardly a week had gone by where I hadn’t seen some advertisement or other guaranteeing relief from chronic pain whether from a natural health store or a certified medical clinic. Person after person swore by their chiro, or their physio, or their massage therapist, as the best and who helped them get over whatever ailment/injury. I pretty much tried options indiscriminately now – ultrasound therapy? Why not. Salt water baths? Ok. Exercises in the pool? Sure (another fail). Read a book and heal yourself? What’s one more go-around? Furthermore, there didn’t seem to be any catch (which actually made it seem, on the other hand, even more suspicious) with this “book-reading” method for back pain. There was nothing to buy, beyond $10 for the book, and there were no physical exercises, which scored a point in my books. I never wanted to see another physiotherapist in my life at that point. And while I, like most people, I’m sure, didn’t want to sing kum-by-yah and talk about my emotions, when you’re in that much pain and suffering, you are willing to do just about anything to get it to stop. I had no pride left at that point, nothing left to lose.
My main hesitation to buy the book arose from fear of disappointment, yet again. The promises were so huge. I even read a story online about a person who was playing soccer again six weeks after reading the book, which really hit me hard personally. Is this book really saying I could be playing soccer again in a couple of months? I could all of a sudden be normal again? I couldn’t even entertain the thought. How could it be possible? Surely more people would know about this if it were true? Maybe the book just makes people think they feel better, somehow, like a sort of placebo effect, I speculated. But how could someone “imagine” their herniated disc felt better enough to play a sport? That made no sense. You can’t imagine that level of pain away. But I felt compelled to buy the book. My only loss would be $10, and of course, the littlest sign of hope, no matter how foolish, always lights a flicker in any human soul, and I wanted so badly to believe that maybe this could help me. So I ordered the book.
While I waited for the book to come in the mail I decided to read more about Dr. Sarno’s “method.” Basically, it seemed his treatment consisted of two elements – acknowledging that there is nothing structurally wrong with your back and that the pain is all in your head, and you just have to talk to your brain or something weird like that. So I decided to test it out. I decided to do something completely bold and just go for a walk. I hadn’t walked in months but no doctor had actually said it was bad for me – in fact most had said to try and get whatever exercise I could – so why shouldn’t I?
The first fifty metres of my walk I felt actually pretty good, and it was so good to get out and get some exercise again. But then I start to get one alarming pain after another. My hip flexors felt like they were snapping, and I could feel sharp and alarming pains appearing in my hips, back, pelvis and legs. And the pain roared into flame and I just barely made it home. When I came in the front door I felt two conflicting sensations: the first, exhilaration from exercise and getting the blood flowing, and secondly, increasing, alarming pain. The pain continued and continued to grow and I ended up back in bed just trying to breathe through the pain. Now I’ve really done it, I thought. I undid any progress (what progress, I ask now?) I’ve made from resting my back. I felt terrible about what I’d done and my husband was frustrated too. Dr. Sarno was just another dead end. I was now completely without hope. My husband and I decided I would have to try a cortisone shot into my SI joint. Perhaps it would work. I was depressed and miserable. Cortisone shots into the SI joint were reputed to be excruciatingly painful, and the length of time of relief they brought was a total lottery. Some people only needed one and healed, others’ relief lasted six months, some a week, some forty-eight hours. Injections and surgery, my only options left, meant pain to combat pain. We talked about booking an injection in the coming week. But I was totally dejected and emotionally drained. I was completely without hope. That night I was simply out of prayers. We had prayed that God would lead me to a physician who understood what was going on with me. I had nothing left to pray for, and I remember that night all I could cry out was simply, Abba!
Well, the next day a package came in the mail for me. I knew what it was, and I debated throwing it in the trash without even opening it. But curiosity got the better of me, and when reading books is your favourite pastime and you’re flat on your back anyway, what’s to stop you? I quickly flipped to the index of Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection to see if “sacroiliac dysfunction” was mentioned and was disappointed to see it wasn’t, but “herniated disc” was there. I also did some Googling and found a blog where a woman claimed to have healed her SI joint dysfunction by reading this book. And I was still stubbornly hopeful. Or at least I wanted to rule out this method completely. So I began to read that afternoon.
And I read and I read. And the scales fell from my eyes and I understood it all. I read myself on every page. Everything that had happened to me, from the beginning of my back injury – no, going back even before that – to the present, every symptom of every kind I had had, was all laid out for me. There was knowledge in that book I had never encountered in my entire life. And everything that was written there ran contrary to what I had believed about the body and how it works. I read about ninety-percent of the book in one sitting (I mean “lying”), in about two and a half hours. Then I got out of that bed, and I never got back in it again.
Within a few days I began to resume a more normal life than I had in months. I went up and down stairs, and began performing physically taxing activities, such as vacuuming, moving furniture, carrying groceries and lifting my toddler – heck, I even lifted my five-year-old with joy (and I still revel in doing that today – I carried her, now six, a kilometer down a beach this summer), and felt the pain begin to dim like a dying light. I began driving again and leaving the house on my own, and in one week I began working out some. I could do jumping jacks and push-ups normally as though I had not become physically weakened from lying in bed for weeks. My muscle weakness vanished and I could lift my legs as high as I wanted. I began walking for exercise, and around six weeks I took the plunge and began running. About ten weeks after reading Healing Back Pain, I was playing soccer again. I began running five kilometres and eventually entered a five kilometre race and placed first in my age category. At the time of writing, it is the one year anniversary since being bedridden and pain of that magnitude has never returned. I have completely exited the world of chronic pain. Pain of that extremity seems so foreign to me I can hardly even remember or imagine it. Sometimes I wonder whether it wasn’t all really just a nightmare; but then I’ll stumble upon some old texts about people bringing us meals, or a note I wrote my husband, or some chiropractor receipt. Or I only have to ask my husband – “That really happened, right? When I was bedridden?”. And people still ask me about my back. No, it was all real. And somehow, I read a book and healed myself. When no doctor could. When every doctor was wrong.
So what miracle cure was outlined in this book? I will go over some main points, but if you are reading this story and suffering yourself, you must read Sarno’s books for yourself. Why? You must read them because the cure is knowledge, but the knowledge Sarno presents in his books runs so contrary to conventional scientific understanding that you have to read about it in detail to become fully convinced of it. It is unlikely that just telling a person about the book could heal them (see my experience above where I tried to go for a walk after only reading about Sarno on the internet) because everyone has been so fully immersed, for their entire lives, in an injury/degeneration/abnormality = pain narrative. Reading Healing Back Pain is a process of un-indoctrination. By simply changing the way you think about the body, you heal the body. Your body responds to your mind, because they are intricately connected – they are one. If you don’t understand this concept, however, you are not in control of your body. While that may seem like an inanely simplistic idea (of course everyone knows you are in control of your body – when you will a limb to move, it moves!), it is actually a prevailing presupposition both in medicine and society that the mind has actually very little control or influence over the body below the conscious level. It is not believed that the mind can influence itself much either. The pharmaceutical approach to the conditions of anxiety and depression are good examples of this. But even such an idea is contradictory to other facts that doctors do accept about the body, but the contradictions inherent in Western medicine will be delved into later.
There are two main elements to Sarno’s ideas, the first being the structural soundness of the body. The body can heal all injuries within six weeks, including a broken femur bone, which is the largest bone in the body; any pain beyond that cannot be explained by injury, even though the person can point to the “moment” the injury happened, no matter how believable the “injury” was. The second component to Sarno’s books is that chronic pain – or symptoms of almost any kind – actually function as a distraction from repressed emotions in the unconscious. Sarno’s work is very much based on the Victorian Sigmund Freud and his discovery of the id, ego and superego, as well as the connection between what is going in the body and the unconscious (although Freud was mistaken on several points). This is where many people reject Sarno’s ideas, because they misunderstand him to be saying that the pain is all in their head and they are either exaggerating or imagining it. This could not be further from the truth. What Sarno is saying is actually much more radical. The unconscious mind can actually induce physical symptoms in the body – real physiological changes, not imagined symptoms. The main way it does this is by withdrawing blood flow, and thereby oxygen, from muscles, tendons and nerves (this is how a muscle spasm or cramp occurs). This all takes place in the autonomic system. In fact, Sarno writes that chronic pain, which he calls Tension Myoneural Syndrome (TMS), is hands-down the most excruciating kind of pain he had ever witnessed in his clinical experience. And I can vouch for the “realness” of my pain; my back was so tender to the touch I could barely stand the tag of my pants irritating it or the stinging of the shower beating on it. I could not bear for the massage therapist to touch the most tender parts. Tenderness to the touch is actually the leading sign of TMS; Dr. Sarno diagnosed his patients by a physical examination. There are actually several particular tender points on the body that are common to TMS patients, mostly in the postural areas (neck, shoulders, lower back, buttocks and the outside of the thighs), even though actual symptoms can manifest themselves anywhere in the body, including the digestive system (hence my nausea).
This may still all sound very bizarre, especially if you have never even believed in an unconscious. Certainly, we all have a sense of a sub-conscious, of ideas or feelings in the back of our mind, that grow into consciousness over time, at which point we can identify and express them. That there could be emotions somewhere in our minds we are completely unaware of – that we could be harbouring anger when we are consciously happy – is something almost everybody finds hard to accept. Fair enough. This is the attitude of probably most people (including myself) when they first pick up Sarno’s book. Like I said, his ideas go against the prevailing narrative we have been taught and believed all our lives, and that doctors reinforce in their offices, and which they learned in medical school. You’re not going to start believing right off the bat one guy who says otherwise.
But Sarno’s discussion of what, exactly, doctors learn in medical school grabbed a hold of me, and this is, I think, the point at which, or the reason why, many start to seriously consider what he is saying. For, as he lays out his case, based on both research and decades of clinical experience, on the structural soundness of the body to heal itself from injury and the nonsensical, unsuccessful treatments recommended by the conventional medical community to heal chronic pain and other symptoms (which aligned with my own personal experience), he pulls out the pillars from underneath Western conventional medicine and exposes it to be foundationless. Furthermore, the rise of alternative medicine – naturopaths, homeopaths, chiropractors, osteopaths, etc. – prove the failure of conventional medicine to genuinely help people. In Canada alone 6 million people are suffering from chronic pain and doctors are utterly helpless to help them, other than with a “try this, try that” approach that is really only about managing symptoms, not curing them. I repeat this, because this an important and inarguable truth: doctors today are unable to cure chronic pain. Ask anyone, whether patient or doctor. To cure means to go away forever. Dr. Sarno was not a naturopath and he was not promoting “alternative medicine” (he worked at a major medical institute in New York, The Rusk Institute). He found the real cause of chronic pain and thereby the proper treatment. All other treatments for chronic pain are poor clinical practice; you don’t treat symptoms or pain in good medicine – you treat the cause.
Dr. Sarno actually started out treating patients with back pain conventionally at the beginning of his career in the 1960s. By conventional, I mean using ultrasound, physiotherapy, and surgery. In other words, trying to give patients relief from their symptoms. He became discouraged over time, however, with the meagre, frustrating results. Some patients improved while others didn’t, and some had the pain in their back go away only to have it surface in their shoulder or somewhere else. Furthermore, patients would claim the pain occurred in one area while an MRI showed an abnormality in another. Some threw out their backs simply bending over to a pick a toothbrush, which could not be explained by the musculoskeletal structure of the back. Young people were diagnosed with degenerative spines. Studies began to surface showing that herniated discs were merely a sign of aging, and that all people over 25 had them. And on and on. Sarno describes himself as actually becoming depressed about his work because he could tell he was not really helping people and felt no confidence in giving treatments because he could not even be sure he understood what was going on with his patients. Eventually, however, he began to notice trends among his patients. One was that many of his patients possessed certain personalities (self-motivated, competitive, strong desire to achieve, highly conscientious “do-gooders”). He also noticed that those who were more optimistic tended to get better, and also that many of his patients had histories of stress-induced conditions such as ulcers. When he began telling his patients there was probably nothing wrong with their backs and they could resume their normal activities, his success rates improved. Someone suggested that migraines were a distraction from repressed rage and he began to wonder if the same mechanism wasn’t at work in his back patients as well. Eventually he abandoned physiotherapy altogether and began instead simply having his patients attend lectures, screening his patients to see if they would accept a psychological diagnosis, and his success rates skyrocketed to 80%-90%.
Sarno also began studying the history of medicine, which he discusses more deeply in this books. He credits Renee Descartes, the philosopher famous for “I think, therefore I am,” (making man rather than God the starting point of knowledge, thus birthing Western philosophy) with engendering the 20th century Western medical approach in which the mind and body are disconnected. The work of psychologists such as Sigmund Freud and other physicians in the Victorian era who generally believed in a whole-body approach to medicine, where physicians considered a patient’s mental and emotional history in their physical health, almost took medicine down the right path. However, in the 1950s, Western medicine went completely in the direction of chemistry. Everything that happens in the body is a result of chemical reactions, making the person a victim of their structural and chemical makeup, and this is how we get to the philosophy that the mind cannot influence the body because they are separate. Every illness, symptom, condition, disease and pain is now explained entirely by structure and chemistry, from musculoskeletal pain anywhere in the body (herniated discs, tendonitis and more), including headaches and migraines, to digestive issues (acid reflux, food intolerances, irritable bowel and more), to conditions of the mind, such as depression and anxiety, and even disturbing ones such as anorexia and pedophilia, are all now explained by structural, chemical causes. And how do you treat chemical problems? With chemical solutions – i.e. drugs. Yet the cause of the problem is not chemical, although chemical changes can be induced; the cause is emotional, and more importantly, totally reversible.
Unfortunately, most patients or doctors refuse to believe that any of these symptoms or conditions can be overcome with your mind. Such an idea is totally laughed at. In fact, people get down right offended by it. (I sympathize some, but not that far. A psychosomatic diagnosis did not offend me. I just wanted the pain to disappear. Some people have to reach the bottom, though, until they can accept such a diagnosis.) Unfortunately, a chemical-structural approach to medicine leaves patients helpless, disempowered victims. Furthermore, doctors can actually increase or initiate pain in patients because of the “nocebo” effect (opposite of “placebo”) where being given a diagnosis can lead to actual symptoms, or being told something is bad for you (such as bending over, playing sports, lifting heavy things, wearing high heels/flat shoes) becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as happened to me when pushing my stroller and lifting my toddler. (It would have been better for me if I had never consulted any doctors.) Awareness campaigns about medical conditions actually increase the occurrence of those conditions in the population through the phenomenon of social contagion, where the mind unsconsiously selects a condition that is “in vogue.” (I suspected post-concussion syndrome, which is huge in social consciousness right now, was TMS and told a relative who had PCS about Sarno’s books and the person read them and healed themself). I don’t have the time or space to get into that issue here; read Sarno’s books to learn more.
And yet, contradictorily, doctors do accept the influence of the mind on the body to some extent. Everybody knows that when you are sad, salty tears fall from your eyes. If you are embarrassed, blood flows to your cheeks. If you are nervous, you feel flutterings in your stomach. People’s hearts pound and they shake with fear after a close call on the highway or if they believe someone is following them (even if no one is – your body only knows the messages your mind sends it). However, people will not accept that pain indicates rage like tears indicate sadness. Or that you can get control over the pain in your body like you can fight back tears.
So how does one heal with Sarno’s method? There are two very simple concepts. First, you must completely reject any structural diagnosis you have been given, no matter what it was. Of course, there are all these reasons why your diagnosis makes sense. I had five of seven signs of SI joint dysfunction, and so it was very difficult to walk away from the diagnosis, but I had to – you have to (SI joint “dysfunction” is a total myth). Your symptoms probably fit, as mine did, within the frame of some conventional structural diagnosis, but that diagnosis assumes a paradigm you must reject (that the mind and body are separate). If you have had chronic conditions of almost any kind, have chased treatments to no avail, and have been checked out by a doctor to rule out anything seriously wrong (although, unfortunately, doctors are not always the best source of the truth) you have TMS or an equivalent.
Secondly, every time you feel the pain, immediately begin to think of things that bother you, and the pain will cease to distract you. I got rid of 90% of my pain in about 10 days doing this. Now, I must emphasize here that this was not easy; in fact, healing myself was the hardest thing I have ever done in my entire life, childbirth aside. Healing from TMS is most definitely a non-linear process for most people; it’s two steps forward, one step back. If I could draw a line graph, the line of healing would fluctuate up and down. One must keep in mind the overall trajectory of the reduction in pain and also focus on the gains. Two positive trends I noticed were, firstly, that even though I had huge, frustrating setbacks, my pain never rose to the level it had before I had read Sarno’s books, and, secondly, every time I had a setback, the next high (or low, depending on you look at it), was a higher high. That means every time I felt better, I felt even better than the last time I had felt better. Many times I had an incredibly frustrating setback and felt like giving up and that this whole project was a stupid waste of time, only to wake up the next morning in disbelief at how incredible I felt. Other times, when I “talked to my brain,” as Sarno recommends, it would feel ridiculous and nothing would happen; however, a week later I would realize that that particular symptom I had “talked to my brain about” was gone. Much of the mental work you do now will benefit you later. Setbacks are very disheartening, but you have to look at them as essentially meaningless – laugh at them, even. I wrote myself a list of reminders that I would look at from time to time, one of them reading, “Just because you encounter potholes does not mean you are on the wrong road.” And of course, when you are just beginning the healing process and have a setback, it can be frightening as you worry if maybe you have injured yourself again, or if maybe Sarno is wrong or his work doesn’t apply to your particular condition. You feel this way because you are still dismantling the scaffolds of doubt in your mind. This is just the normal process. It is a very difficult process, both physically and emotionally. I can remember thinking, “If healing myself of this pain depends entirely on me, I can’t do it. I’m just not strong enough. I don’t have the mental discipline to control my train of thinking constantly, for who knows how long.” I had no one to talk to, no one to ask advice, knew no one who had ever done what I had done. And yet – the gains began to mount. The rewards were astounding. I could not deny, after a couple of weeks, that the books had catapulted me back to a normal life, although I was still experiencing some pain. I could do all these things I was not able to do before, largely because not only was the pain diminishing in severity but because it had also become random and began to correlate less and less with actual physical strain (I could lift something heavy with no pain, but then have pain an hour later, decreasing the belief that I had a true injury). And so I continued to heal, and continued to gain and became more and more certain in my mind about the TMS diagnosis. When it came time to try running, I was ready to face any setback. The mere fact that I could now run was a miracle to me and complete proof that Sarno was right. The first time I lightly jogged I had no pain whatsoever and felt incredulous with joy. The next time, I really pushed myself and ran up a set of stairs by our house that has several hundred steps. When I got home, pain burst through my hips. Any person who had never heard of TMS and felt that kind of pain would have made an appointment with a doctor for the next day, and would have considered my reaction crazy and reckless: I laughed at it and sat down and watched a funny sitcom. The next day the pain was gone.
And what about the rage? What does it mean to think of things that bother you? When I first read about rage in Healing Back Pain, I thought that part was a little wacky (see earlier discussion) and thought it probably didn’t apply to me and I would just focus on believing my body was not injured, as Sarno points out that herniated discs are simply a sign of aging and it is anatomically impossible to “pinch a nerve.” But tasting a little bit of healing made me greedy for more, so about a week after reading Healing Back Pain, I read Sarno’s next book, The MindBody Prescription: Healing the Body, Healing the Pain, in which he claims to have healed over ten thousand patients with his treatments. He focuses more on rage in this book and the role it plays and how to find it. Basically, you perform psychoanalysis on yourself: you try to figure out what is bothering you unconsciously. I decided to try it – there was absolutely nothing to lose. At first, I didn’t get, as many people don’t initially, what Sarno meant when it came to “rage.” I’m angry but I don’t know it? Anybody can think of two or three things that bother them or are a source of stress for them. That’s easy! But Sarno says these are repressed thoughts, thoughts you’ve never allowed yourself to feel before. He suggests making a list of everything, not only things that are happening now, but going back through your childhood, and to consider what it is about your personality that makes them bother you so much. One should focus particularly on childish and immature sources of anger. But you’re always looking for rage. It took me a couple of days to come up with anything. One evening, about five days after I’d read Healing Pack Pain and was now part way through The MindBody Prescription, and was still on the fence about this TMS stuff because the pain was still flaring up regularly, I asked myself, if I could be angry about one thing, no matter what it was, no matter how selfish it was or who it would be about, what would it be? As a Christian this was actually very difficult to do because we are taught to think the best of everyone, make the best of every circumstance, be thankful in all things, etc. But I told myself that I owe this to my family to get better and that it’s simply a mental exercise, and it is. Sarno says that people do not need to act on the rage – they simply need to experience the emotions so that the pain ceases to function as a distraction. Furthermore, the emotions are already there; they’re just below the surface of your conscious. You’re simply becoming self-aware. And I believed, and still do, that where there’s truth, Christ is in it, and where there’s healing, Christ is in it. If this works, then it is true and must be of Christ, the source of all truth and the great Healer – and the creator of our bodies.
Suffice it to say that the first source of rage I came up with had to do with soccer, actually. And I allowed myself to feel the full anger of it. Upon realizing this, my back flared up terribly and I went to bed almost ready to give up on Sarno again. But I woke up the next morning and an incredibly significant amount of pain had vanished, and I felt about ten years younger, physically and emotionally. It felt like waking up from a fever. I gotta get me some more of this prescription, I thought. This was the pivotal turning point for me in accepting the TMS diagnosis (although of course doubts resurfaced – they always do). And so I continued seeking sources of rage (another one was all the lies about my back physicians had told me; others had to do with what was going on in my life the summer my back pain started. Reflecting on what exactly was going on your life when the symptoms began is very telling) and in about 10 days after reading Healing Back Pain, about 90% of my pain was gone.
I was amazed. Dumbfounded. Overcome with joy and gratitude. Everybody in my household was. But it was difficult mentally because as I began to process what on earth had just happened to me, I could not deny the nagging wonderings that were beginning to take shape: Had I caused my own pain all along? Am I some kind of schizophrenic? There is a diabolical side of me that tortured myself for no reason for six months? At the same time, however, I also felt like a super hero. I had seen doctors with graduate degrees in medicine and I did what they could not. I was riding on cloud nine and was so full of adrenaline most days I could hardly sleep. In the span of two weeks, I had gone from believing that my spine was deteriorated beyond the help of medicine and I was basically a cripple, apparently for life, to not only being catapulted to full health, but now believing that my body was stronger than I had ever believed before in my whole life. How can the psyche handle such a see-saw of revelation? I guess the answer to that question is that both the body and the mind – the mindbody – are much stronger than they are often given credit for.
I had to read more of Dr. Sarno. And so after I finished The MindBody Prescription, I moved onto The Divided Mind: The Epidemic of Mindbody Disorders, and read about the development of Sarno’s work and how he came to conclude that TMS and its equivalents (there are many and include a whole array of symptoms, disorders and conditions) are universal and are part of the human condition. Everyone suffers from TMS or its equivalents; it simply varies from person to person in a matter of degree. This is the way the mind and body simply work, just as when you cry from sadness or sweat from nervousness. When tears come, do you feel as though you have a diabolical spirit inside you somewhere causing physical symptoms you can’t control? Most people usually do not like to cry. But you don’t feel like a schizophrenic when it happens, even when you don’t want it to, even when you tell yourself to stop crying, because you know your mind and body work together; they mirror each other. Tears are telling you something; they are messages meant to be “read.” Rage operates similarly, but as long as we keep living a “divided mind”, looking at all chronic pain as structurally induced, we will continue to live as schizophrenics. Imagine living in a world where crying was believed to be a sign of malfunctioning tear ducts. Absurd. And yet this is medicine today.
Another significant factor is whether the person has been “nocebo-ed” in any way (as I was by the chiropractor and physiotherapist). As long as doctors peddle a degenerative view of the body and admonish patients with nonsensical advice such as not to bend over or to lift properly, etc., people in the Western world will continue to experience chronic pain, though their lives are not nearly as physically demanding as tribal cultures in Africa, where no chiropractors or physiotherapists exist, or even as their own great-great-grandparents, who spent eight hours a day doing “back-breaking” labour in the fields, and yet somehow never herniated a disc until the advent of the MRI. Or our grandparents who pounded on typewriters, yet gently tapping a screen causes excruciating carpal tunnel in our wrists.
While I was healing it was stressful to see all the chiro and physio offices that populate almost every street in every city. Passing by them was like dodging missiles of doubt. Could it really be that I had been given insight into the epidemic of chronic pain that plagues half of the world and all of these clinics were farces? It was too crazy to be believable, if I wasn’t walking evidence of the truth. I actually re-watched the movie The Matrix to psych me up because honestly that is how I felt – like I was Neo living in the Matrix. Everyday I talked to people and saw things and heard things that I knew were not true and had to ignore. It was as though I had to live like “up” as we always knew it was actually “down” and “down” was actually “up.” I was now operating on a completely different paradigm of thinking. I guess in some ways this was easy for me because as a Christian I already accept ideas many cast off as absurd, and as a lover of literature, my capacity to imagine alternative worlds and ways of thinking and living, made it easier to believe that the world was not really quite as I knew it. In the end, my lack of scientific knowledge was greatly to my benefit. Sarno himself says that people from a scientific background struggle the most to accept the TMS diagnosis. All you have to do is believe, but that is the hardest part.
I’m sure many objections come up in people’s mind as they read this or hear of others’ stories. The first objection I’ve already addressed. The pain was not all in my head. How does one even imagine pain? I don’t know how anyone would do that, or what that statement even means, for pain to be only “in the head.” The pain was in my back, not my head, as in, the pain radiated in the area of my back, and when you pressed on it, it hurt even more. If I could feel pain in my head, I’d have had a headache. I’ll reiterate one more time: the mind can induce physiological symptoms in the body. It’s a similar mechanism as when you cry. Sarno’s books delve more deeply into the science of it.
The second objection I want to address is whether Sarno’s treatments are merely placebo. I struggled with this greatly. I had already experienced the crushing disappointment of a treatment to work, only for the pain to return again, and again. Nothing I had tried lasted. Absolutely nothing. And Sarno discusses how this concerned him too, as he meditated on the placebo effect. He concluded that his approach could not be a placebo, because it was simply knowledge, not a physical treatment or drug. Secondly, it was the only treatment that lasted. His patients’ pain went away permanently. He checked up on patients later, and many sent him letters years later, still with no pain. Testimonies abound on the internet of people pain-free for years. Furthermore, he talks about something he calls the symptom imperative, whereby a person receives a successful treatment (say, back surgery), and another symptom arises in their body (depression or leg pain). However, when they begin to locate sources of rage, all the symptoms go away completely and the person is healed. Before a person deals with rage, “healing” from a particular symptom is simply placebo. When all the symptoms go away, the person is healed, which is what happened to me.
And I began to wonder, what is a placebo, anyway? When a person takes a sugar pill in a drug trial, and their symptoms disappear, what really happened? Unless sugar has some unknown medicinal properties, the patient somehow must have healed himself. I began to look more into placebo cases and found astonishing ones where people had placebo knee or heart surgery and yet their knee pain or heart condition went away. I concluded that if there were any kind of “placebo treatment” I would want to “take,” it would be where I simply changed my way thinking and healed myself with my own mind – no drugs, no cost, not to mention the complete use of my body again. And if you accept that a placebo is real, then you also admit the power of the mind over the body. And then, of course, the most infallible piece of evidence for Sarno’s treatment not being a placebo (a temporary healing) is that when I returned to playing soccer and lifted heavy things, nothing bad happened. If this was just a “placebo,” how could I do those things without re-injuring myself?
One irksome question many people ask me and which I suppose is inevitable, is whether Dr. Sarno was a Christian (he unfortunately passed away about a year before I discovered his books). Now, the implications of the whole-person philosophy of the body in regards to Christianity itself are fascinating and I love to ponder them, but why that question in particular is frustrating is because nobody ever, ever, once asked me if any of the other physicians I saw – and there were nine of them in total – were Christians. I’m sure they never ask their own physicians, either. (How many know that chiropractic medicine originated from the occult?) Nobody that I am aware of chooses a physician based on his or her religious beliefs. And why should they? God in his grace has bestowed all humans with the capacity to make truthful observations about his creation, otherwise how could he hold them culpable and “without excuse” (Romans 1:18-20) regarding their own salvation? This is simply all Dr. Sarno did; he paid great attention to his patients. In fact, he dropped the scientific paradigm he had been taught and began to study his patients from scratch, without looking through a false lens. Freud, too, although an atheist and a major contributor to modern secular thinking because he postulated that God was simply a projection of the unconscious, was simply observant too (although it is important to note that many of his conclusions about exactly why and how his patients’ unconscious affected their bodies were incorrect, according to Sarno. Interestingly, Dr. Sarno re-interprets Freud’s own case studies using a TMS framework and postulates that each individual was suffering from repressed rage, not repressed perverted sexual fantasies). Why God gives common grace to even his enemies I will leave to a greater theologian than I to answer.
There’s a bigger and more relevant question than “Is Sarno a Christian?” that needs to be asked: is Western medicine based on a Christian understanding of the body as made known in creation and the Bible? Well, as I already delved into earlier, Western medicine’s division of the body and mind can be traced back to Renee Descartes, whose philosophy birthed modern secular thought because he began with man as the starting point for knowledge (interestingly he called himself a Catholic, but the Catholic church rejected his ideas). Here we have a (possible) Christian making false observations about creation. We can unequivocally say that Western medicine, which all the doctors, physios and chiros practice, is based on a division of the body and mind which is essentially the false doctrine of dualism. Descartes was trying to establish the immortality of the soul by elevating it above the body. Probably he made a mistake by conflating the mind and soul. Perhaps our souls are beyond our bodies but currently our minds are intertwined with our bodies. The mind is not a ghost in the machine. I firmly believe that “whole-body” or “whole-person” medicine, which was more mainstream prior to the 1950s’, is a Christian approach to the body. This is a huge topic which I do not have the space to go into here.
Others have asked me why I don’t just call what happened to me a miracle. I have no problem calling it that, but really it comes down to what you mean by a miracle. If you mean an event that defies the laws of nature, then no, it was not a miracle. I have always found that definition problematic anyway for two reasons. First, how can some of God’s works be miraculous and not others? If creation was a miracle, when did the miracle stop? And second, how could God act so contradictorily as to work against the laws which he himself put in place? How could the central moment of history, the resurrection of Christ, which the universe had been set in motion for, defy the parameters of that universe? C. S. Lewis says it best when he writes that a miracle is simply something we have not seen before, and which should cause a paradigm shift in our thinking. He gives the example of alien scientists studying the biology of a female body, and then becoming surprised to observe the woman become pregnant and give birth. Should they call the event a miracle because it goes against all of their previous studies, or should they sheepishly crumple all their notes up, toss them in the waste basket and start again, with the female’s capacity to bear children as the starting point of female anatomy? So it is with chronic pain. Physicians need to throw out their notes. The paradigm is wrong. It’s a miracle, but it’s also just the truth. The truth is a miracle if you’ve never heard it before, I guess.
I think Christians need to throw out their notes on the unconscious mind as well, if they involve reservations. The unconscious processes are a gift from God; imagine how absurd it would be if we had to consciously think about breathing and to tell our heart to pump blood and digest food and so on. Furthermore, the physical reactions that emotions induce give us knowledge about our soul. Tears, butterflies in the stomach and so on are messages from deep within that we are supposed to heed. Pain is a sign of rage. God has designed us very well. There is much talk today among Christians of suffering as a kind of good, and there is some biblical truth to this; however, suffering is never meant to last, or we would never desire heaven. I never saw my heavenly Father’s face more clearly than when I healed, whereas before, when I was suffering, his will was shrouded in mystery to me. The cross and the resurrection were the same to the disciples. Sometimes I think Christians can be a little too doom and gloom, bearing their cross of chronic pain, believing that it is lifelong. I think biblical suffering and chronic pain have gotten muddled somehow, perhaps by Somebody. The truth is that God did make our bodies very good, and we have made the mistake of listening to the lies of physicians who preach that the body is very fragile, degenerates easily and does not heal itself. I know which Father is behind those teachings, and it is not the Father of Light.
One time, a month or two into my healing, I was playing a song about communion on the piano and reflecting on all that happened to me, and Sarno’s ideas about the significance of blood in the body and the significance of blood in the Bible, not only as a symbol but a real, bodily experience that Christ endured, when he shed his blood. Suddenly I remembered the scene in the garden of Gethsemane, where Christ endured such mental stress that he began to sweat drops of blood – a true psychosomatic, or “mindbody,” experience, if I ever heard of one. Under great emotional tension Jesus’ mind induced physiological symptoms in the body. And what tension was broiling in his mind is clearly explained: “Take this cup from me…. Yet not my will but Thine.” Truly Christ was fully human; truly he felt great emotions; truly the mind and body are one.
It’s difficult to reflect on all that happened to me without considering the horrific implications of Sarno’s theory that medical practitioners have got the body horribly wrong. In The Divided Mind he discusses the billion-dollar industry of back surgery implants to fix spinal degenerations. That millions of people are having their backs cut open and tissue removed or metal rods inserted for no apparent reason is enough to make one feel sick to one’s stomach. It equals the medieval practice of bloodletting. Other times my husband and I have to laugh at the comedic absurdity of it all – that we used to think comfy chairs could injure your back. That’s how this life goes; people die and babies are born the same minute, horrors and joys at the same time.
I’ll be forever grateful to Dr. Sarno for pointing me to healing – to how to heal myself. For showing me truths about myself I didn’t even know. I have never felt more fondly about a total stranger than this man. A man who basically said, “Take up your mat and walk;” a man who looked past the outside and saw “everything I ever did.” Some people actually call Sarno their “god,” but I know that he simply did what a healer is supposed to do. He did not create the body; he only witnessed the truth. True praise and thanks is due the Creator for making the body fearfully and wonderfully good, for truly knowing us – for this is what we really long for from doctors – and for promising to let good ultimately prevail over suffering in the end.