What Causes Pain? And Some Ideas on How to Approach It
Recently I read a fantastic blog called "You are Not a Car" written by a pioneering yoga teacher I follow. (Please read Kristine's blog here if you can, it is so good!) She starts her blog off with an anecdote of a woman who comes to her yoga class seeking help for her back pain. Then she talks about how back pain is a "common and elusive challenge" because of the way that the western medical world is still coming out of its "biomedical model hole," which treats the body like a car: "You got a part that’s defective? You replace it. Your fluid is low? Put some more in. Battery dead? Jump start it." Because of that mindset the Western medicine world decided that back pain is caused by "some structure outta whack in your back." But for most people that's not accurate. Kristine says Western medicine is now realizing that back pain does not show up in X-rays or MRIs and can't be explained structurally.
"Research has shown consistently that there’s almost no correlation between back pain and the condition of the structures in your low back. There are people walking around with backs that look like train wrecks in their MRI but they are not in pain. There are others who have perfectly gorgeous lumbar spines and nerves and are in excruciating pain."
And this is my absolute favorite part:
"So, what really causes back pain?
Loneliness, depression, inflammation, nervous system dysregulation, lack of social support, poverty, lack of education, lack of meaning and purpose, sitting too much, spiritual disenfranchisement, existential angst, limited access to health care, working too much, bad relationships, limited access to green spaces, shame, old physical injuries, old emotional injuries, and a lot more.
Chronic pain is a biopsychospiritual challenge that deserves a broad perspective and approach which will never be found exclusively in a pill."
OMG that last line!! Can you say it for us again Kristine??
Chronic pain is a biopsychospiritual challenge that deserves a broad perspective and approach which will never be found exclusively in a pill.
Oh Kristine - you are singing my song!! I've done a lot of my own personal research on this topic and I have come to believe that what causes chronic pain is basically the culminating effects of stress. Stress of all kinds - physical, psychological, spiritual. I have also come to believe that pain is the body's way of getting our attention so we start thinking, breathing and living differently.
The tricky part is that if pills or surgery or physical therapy aren't working for you...then what? Where do you start? What do you do? That's where our medical system is not serving us well. When people have chronic pain and the western medical world doesn't know how to "fix it like a car" then people are often left with little support to try and navigate other options - not only will it likely cost them out of pocket, they may also not have any idea of where to start looking for help. And because they may be trying random things with little guidance, they may not feel very hopeful about the outcome.
Luckily, the universe is friendly to seekers and I think we eventually find what we need…however, it sure would be nice if western medicine would point people in the right direction when they can't serve us anymore. Wouldn't it be amazing if your doctor said, "I'm sorry we can't help you, but for your particular issue, we have found that people tend to get better with X or Y type of treatments. Here's a list of great providers that accept your insurance, why don't you give them a try?" Oh, that is a dream of mine for sure!! (And of course there are some great practitioners out there who are doing just that, and thank God for them!!)
Despite that last paragraph, I'm not here to blame western medicine. I want to offer some thoughts/ideas for those who are in chronic pain and are feeling lost, confused or unsupported. First of all, if that is you, I want to say, "I feel ya." I've been there, and you are not in an easy spot. A lot is weighing on you. The pain makes you feel trapped, tired, limited, old, angry and cranky. It essentially causes retraction and your mindset starts to become more fixed and judgmental as a result. Thoughts like: "What is wrong with me?" "I guess I'm just getting older and this is going to be my new normal." "Why am I the only person with this problem?" "This is probably the beginning of the end." "How am I going to live with this?" "This stupid (body part) has been giving me trouble since that thing that happened when I was 8." The mind tends to jump toward negativity and fear. Which is going to lead you toward decisions that are based on fear.
But curiosity is going to be your best friend right now. Curiosity is the opposite of judgment. Judgment already knows the answer. Curiosity does not. This is the time to start asking your body some loving, nonjudgmental questions and tuning into your inner wisdom. I have been down the chronic pain road myself and have learned to translate my physical/emotional pain into an attention-getting statement. It sounds like this: "Hey Mandy, we're tired of doing things this way. Can you please find a better way to do it?" So then I start looking at how my thoughts, actions, lifestyle choices are not making me/my body happy.
But here's the kicker - even this suggestion to look at your thoughts, actions and lifestyle choices can be done with a judgmental/contracted mindset. Example: "I'm probably in pain because I'm overweight." "I'm probably in pain because of all that sugar I've been eating." See how the mind will jump to assumptions based on judgments that were already there? Those statements are just your inner critic taking over, answering the question before your body even gets a chance!
Your body is not as judgmental as your mind is. It’s best to ask it open-minded, off-the-wall, extremely curious, self-loving questions - things that will get that stuck energy moving in a different direction. Here are some ideas (feel free to make up your own!): "Is this pain REALLY about my weight?" "Is this pain REALLY caused by eating too much sugar, or is it something else?" "Pain, what are you here to tell me?" "What do you need?" "What would feel best to you right now?" "How can I best support you?" "Do I need to accept this pain right now, or would it be better to do something about it?" "Are there any thoughts associated with this pain? What are they?" Is there an emotion associated with this pain?" "If so, what is that emotion and what's it about?" "Who could help me find solutions for feeling better?" Look at your whole life (not just the pain issue) and ask yourself, "What aspect of my life could be better?"
With these types of questions you "open the valve"* of energy and possibilities. Your body is completely connected to your soul's deepest desires. Does it need you to quit sugar or lose 30 lbs to meet those desires? I don't know. That's for you to decide....by asking some loving, honest, kind questions of yourself.
"Open the valve" is a term that my friend and colleague, Sara McRae, uses in her Touch for Health classes.
Good luck on your journey!
Here are a few resources to assist you on your journey out of pain:
Book: “Loving What Is” by Byron Katie - a book that questions your thoughts
Local Business: Acupuncture for the People, sliding scale group acupuncture.
Book: “Why People Don’t Heal and How They Can” by Carolyn Myss, PhD
Video: Emotional Stress Release Technique by Touch for Health
Video: Energy Balancing Technique by Healing Touch