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Chapter 9 – How I Overcame Lower Back Pain

 

 

(I am not a medical doctor and in this Chapter I share what worked for me.  I am not legally authorized to tell people how they should take care of their health. It is up to each person to decide for his or her self whether a similar approach is appropriate.)

I used to have lower back pain. Sometimes this pain would be located by where my spine is. Sometimes I felt it at other parts of my back. Sometimes I felt pain in the upper part of one of my legs. Sometimes I’d get a sharp, stabbing pain in my lower back. I also experienced upper back and neck pain, but not to the extent I experienced lower back pain.

I started to experience lower back pain when I was in my late 20s. Initially the pain was only occasional. As the years progressed I started to feel lower back pain more frequently. Neck and upper back pain occurred later on. I tried chiropractic treatment for a while, but it didn’t help me. Sometimes I’d feel a little better afterwards, sometimes worse. It became really frustrating when my back pain really bothered me and I couldn’t do anything to feel better.

Eventually my pain reached the point where I had a hard time making it through a day of work. Taking care of daily responsibilities such as washing dishes became an ordeal because the slight angle I had to lean forward in order to do so felt like too much. It sure seemed like I dropped things a lot back then, just so I would have to find a way to pick them up without bending my back.

Eventually my pain progressed to the point where I could sleep for only two to four hours a night. This period lasted for about three months and was very difficult. One morning I got out of the shower, and “OUCH,” I felt lower back pain worse than I had ever felt it before. The odd thing is that on this occasion the pain wasn’t by my spine. It occurred about three inches to the right of my spine. Even though I had never used pain killers for my back before, I called my parents and said, “I need help, I need pain killers, and I can’t get to a doctor or a drug store to pick up a prescription.”

I got the name of a back doctor from my regular physician. I called this doctor and over the phone he set up a prescription for Vicodin and some muscle relaxers. My parents picked them up for me.

The back doctor I saw had me go through the usual diagnostic procedures including X-rays and an MRI. Fortunately, no disc damage or any other physical damage doctors who make a physical diagnosis look for could be found. Therefore, surgery was out of the question. Instead I went to physical therapy, but it didn’t help me get rid of my pain.

One day I went to a bookstore in order to check out the back pain books. By chance–or perhaps not chance–I found a book by Dr. John Sarno. Dr. Sarno found that the physical diagnosis he conducted for patients with back pain (and other ailments such as neck pain) didn’t lead to the results that should’ve been obtained if conventional back pain theory is true. He found that many people had spinal abnormalities such as worn discs, yet they didn’t have pain. On the other hand, many people had no spinal abnormalities whatsoever, yet they had back and/or neck pain. Eventually Dr. Sarno came to the conclusion that in the majority of cases a psychological explanation was responsible for back pain, neck pain, myofascial pain, fibromyalgia, migraine headaches, repetitive stress syndrome and some of the other painful conditions people suffer.

There was a time when I would’ve had a hard time agreeing with Dr. Sarno’s conclusion that back pain often has a psychological origin, because I believed that my pain was too real to be the result of “hypochondria.” However, hypochondria isn’t the explanation Dr. Sarno has in mind. Eventually, with the help of Dr. Stanley J. Cohen, Dr. Sarno came up with the theory that a person’s subconscious mind creates pain in order to divert his (or her) attention away from repressed rage. Dr. Sarno contends that the part of a person’s mind Dr. Sigmund Freud referred to as the id (inner child), becomes angry with some of the things that happen during a person’s life–often at a level he isn’t conscious of–and causes him to store up rage. For example, a lady who is a housewife and mother of eight children might take care of her responsibilities without showing any outer anger, but on the inside, at a level she isn’t conscious of, her inner child complains and builds up a reservoir of rage. Because her conscious mind isn’t willing to become aware of this rage, her subconscious mind, with the assistance of her autonomic nervous system, creates pain in order to divert her attention from the rage. Dr. Sarno contends that once a person becomes conscious of what he is doing, the divergent strategy stops. Not always though.

I’m a person for which not always applies, even though I got over my pain. Yet, there is a psychological explanation for how I got over my pain with some spirituality mixed in. Before I explain what worked for me, below are the reasons for which I don’t believe Dr. Sarno’s description of what takes place is completely accurate.

  • If a person’s subconscious mind created pain in order to keep rage (or another emotion) repressed, rage would probably become conscious when the pain goes away. This isn’t the case.
  • Many people with a condition such as back pain don’t experience pain to the same degree all the time. Therefore, one would expect that rage would become more conscious when less pain is experienced. This isn’t the case.
  • Our minds are quite good at suppressing thoughts and emotions we don’t want to become aware of without creating pain. Therefore, our subconscious mind wouldn’t have to create pain in order for us to remain unaware of repressed rage.
  • Many people with pain are aware of the thoughts and emotions they don’t want to be aware of. This shows that pain doesn’t prevent us from becoming conscious of something we don’t want to be conscious of.
  • Dr. Sarno claims that a person’s subconscious mind uses an incident such as an accident or movement to fool a person into believing that he has a pain because he hurt himself. He also claims that oxygen depravation is the physiological process that causes pain. There is no way the painful effects of oxygen depravation could take place quickly enough so pain would occur at the same moment an accident or movement takes place. Also, pain that is the result of oxygen depravation feels quite different than a condition such as back pain. Also, why don’t people become conscious of rage before an accident or a movement takes place, if pain is required in order for rage to remain repressed?
  • Dr. Sarno also claims that repetitive stress syndrome is a strategy a person’s subconscious mind uses in order to keep a person from becoming conscious of repressed rage. If his theory is true, then people would be aware of their rage before they developed repetitive stress syndrome. This isn’t the case.

I say all of this, yet at the beginning of this chapter I stated that I got over back pain and other physical problems through psychological and spiritual means. So what’s my story? Well, once upon a time I found out while meditating that the energy flow within me got blocked precisely where I felt pain. There were also occasions when I wasn’t experiencing pain, I’d sit down to meditate, my energy level would increase, a part of my energy flow would get blocked by a part of my body, and I’d experience pain in this location.

It didn’t take long to find that psychological issues I hadn’t dealt with caused me to have energetic blockages. Once I found a way to become clear of the responsible psychological issue, the resulting block would go away and I would become pain free–finally–considering all of the other approaches that didn’t work for me. If this energy flow thing I’m talking about seems strange to you, I’m talking about an energy that is referred to by names such as kundalini and Chi (please see chapter 4 for more information about kundalini). This energy exists within each of us, even though not all of us experience it in a noticeable way. Because of the spiritual growth I’ve gone through, I now experience it in a very noticeable way.

When our subtle energy gets blocked–because our body, mind and spirit are all connected together–our body is affected to varying degrees. It isn’t just a matter of our energy getting blocked, it is also a matter of our energy being out of balance. When it comes to our energy being out of balance, psychological issues aren’t the only culprits. If we consume chemicals that aren’t beneficial to our body such as drugs, alcohol and food that is either unhealthy or doesn’t meet our specific needs, our energy can go out of balance.

During a specific stage of my spiritual practice some of my neck muscles would tense up as I meditated. They would do so because the energetic pathways within my neck area had blockages and energy would bunch up around these blockages. As far as I can tell, this excess energy caused the nerve cells within this part of my body to become activated, and this in turn caused my muscle fibers to contract in a manner that was uncomfortable. When they were in such a state, they were more sensitive than usual. If a person tries to move a muscle fiber when it is in a contracted state rather than the appropriate relaxed state, he might experience a sharp pain.

I believe spirit energy is able to affect physical energy because they aren’t two completely different things that have no way of interacting with each other. Energy is able to manifest in many different ways.

I believe the energy I feel flow within me is the movement of my own spirit being, including my consciousness. The creative aspect of my being and my consciousness are interconnected as one. I am able to experience my spirit being move within me as an object of perception because it interacts with the neurons of my body, and my consciousness is aware of my body’s neural activity.

Dr. Sarno recommends that a person makes a list of the things that troubled him during his life. I made such a list and found it was very helpful. Because I had been around for more than forty years when I made my list, I divided my life into stages so it would be easier to make certain that I became aware of as many issues as possible. There is also the factor of how different time periods of our lives can be stories within themselves. When it comes to issues I neglected to consider when I made a list, I found out about these issues by being attentive to what took place in my life after I made the list, and by listening to what my higher self/spirit guidance told me through dreams and other means.

If you decide to make a list, anything you’ve experienced that causes you to become emotionally hurt or angry should be included. The same is true for fear-related issues, prejudices, and limiting and inaccurate beliefs. A limiting belief system can cause you to feel fear. A prejudicial or judgmental way of viewing other people can also lead to thought energy that causes energetic blocks.

I know it can be difficult to determine if you are buying into a false and limiting belief system. However, the more you allow yourself to examine your beliefs honestly, the more you’ll become free of a way of thinking that doesn’t help you physically, psychologically and spiritually. We have to learn to listen to our hearts and common sense rather than old and mistaken sources of information. If we find that love is our guide rather than fear, we are probably on the right path.

I’m not implying that back pain never has a physical cause. A person might have something such as an injured ligament or strained muscle. However, going by my experience, the experience of Dr. Sarno, other doctors who have taken a similar approach, and various studies, the occurrence of back and neck pain does not closely correspond with physical abnormalities such as worn and ruptured discs. Before I speak about these studies, I’d like to propose a physiological basis for why worn and ruptured discs aren’t responsible for back and neck pain.

First of all, a neuron (nerve cell) is made up of five main parts:

  1.  A cell body that includes the cell’s nucleus
  2. Dendrites that extend from the cell body towards the direction where an incoming signal is received.
  3. An axon hillock which allows an impulse to take place throughout the length of a neuron if a large enough incoming signal is received.
  4. An axon that makes up most of the length of a neuron and includes the sodium/potassium pumps that enable an action potential to travel the length of a neuron.
  5. The axon terminals that extend from the axon and link up with a gland, muscle fiber, or the dendrites of another neuron.

Consider what takes place if you want to turn on a light. You won’t be able to do so by pressing the wire that leads to the light switch. You need to flip the switch. Neuron’s don’t have light switches but they do have dendrites. In order for a neuron to be activated its dendrites need to receive a chemical signal. Applying pressure to a neuron’s axon won’t cause it to become activated just as applying pressure to a wire won’t cause a light to turn on.

The process of creating pain begins when a neuron that serves the purpose of creating pain (nociceptor), a function that many neurons don’t have, receives a chemical signal at the part of a person’s body where its dendrites can be found (e.g., the tip of a person’s finger).

Nociceptors that serve the purpose of letting us know about worn disks don’t exist. The reason for this fact is structural. Neurons innervate tissues such as our skin. They don’t innervate individual cells, and neurons are individual cells. Neurons also don’t innervate our vertebra and discs, because vertebra and discs are a part of our skeletal tissue. Skeletal tissue isn’t innervated by neurons.

I believe it is safe to say that people who believe that back pain is sometimes the result of a pinched neuron agree with some of what I just stated even if they haven’t thought about this issue in the manner described above, because when they speak of a neuron being pinched, they speak as if axon portion of a neuron gets pinched.

If you are considering the possibility that a neuron sends a signal back to a person’s brain when it gets pinched, a neural impulse can move in only one direction. This is for two reasons. One,  a neuron’s sodium/potassium pumps are arranged so the exchange of positive and negative charges can move in only one direction. Two, dendrites are located at only one end of a neuron, and the same is true for axon terminals. This is by design.

Afferent neurons serve the purpose of sending signals from a person’s body to his brain, while efferent neurons serve the purpose of sending signals from a person’s brain to a part of his body. A nociceptor neuron wouldn’t let a person know that an incomplete signal has been received even if such a signal could be sent (a neuron’s axon hillock allows only complete signals to be sent), because they don’t serve this purpose. For example, a nociceptor neuron that serves the purpose of letting a person know that his finger has been pricked with a pin, wouldn’t be able to let him know that it is being pressed upon by something such as a disc. The required chemical signaling processes wouldn’t take place.

It is also significant to note that neurons can be found throughout numerous parts of our body, yet their axons don’t get pressed upon in a manner that leads to pain. Also, our vertebra make contact with various parts of our body, yet pain isn’t created. This is also true with other parts of our skeletal system.

There is also the issue of phantom pain. There are various theories as to why phantom pain takes place. One theory suggests that damaged neurons heal themselves in a manner that causes their axons and dendrites to grow in a way where pain is generated more easily than usual. This theory isn’t the most commonly accepted theory. The most commonly accepted theory is that something within a person’s central nervous system, that is, his brain, causes phantom pain to be created. Even if the overactive neuron theory was true, this wouldn’t provide an explanation as to why back pain is created, because as stated earlier, a neuron’s dendrites and axon terminals don’t exist at the place where a vertebra or disc would press upon a neuron. It is important to note that when people experience phantom pain for an injury such as an amputated limb, they don’t experience it for every nociceptor that used to extend from the part of their limb that is now missing. This suggests that a central problem rather than a peripheral problem is responsible for the creation of phantom pain.

I can’t say for certain why a central problem leads to pain. Perhaps some sort of memory pattern causes the part of a person’s central nervous system that used to be indirectly connected to his missing limb, to become activated in a manner that doesn’t accurately represent the condition of the nociceptors that used to be a part of his lost limb. I say this with the understanding that the nociceptors that belonged to his missing limb no longer have a cell body and its life sustaining attributes, nor their impulse-receiving dendrites. Therefore, they would no longer have the ability to function.

Empirical evidence such as scientific studies show that worn discs aren’t responsible for back and neck pain. Dr. Sarno has found that symptoms often occur in young adults who don’t have bone spurs and/or herniated discs. Bone spurs are extremely common and many of the people who have them don’t have pain. Spurs increase in size and number as people get older to an extent where everybody ought to have back and neck pain, yet they don’t. Neuroradiologists believe that spurs would have to obliterate the foramen[11] before nerve compression would take place, and this is rarely seen. Also, numerous medical literature reports show that large growths in the spine such as benign tumors don’t produce pain (Sarno, Healing Back Pain – The Mind Body Connection, 1991, pages 106-107).

Dr. Sarno and a research assistant conducted a survey where 109 patients with herniated discs were questioned in order to determine if they were pain free after going through Dr. Sarno’s non-physical treatment approach. They were contacted one to three years after being treated. Of these patients, 88 percent (96 patients) experienced no pain or a small amount of pain and their physical activity wasn’t limited; 10 percent (11 patients) had improved but still had some pain and restricted activity; and 2 percent (2 patients) didn’t improve (Sarno, Healing Back Pain – The Mind Body Connection, 1991, pages 104).

The above survey was conducted in 1987. Dr. Sarno conducted another survey in the year 2000. This survey involved 104 patients, 44% (37 patients) had no or little pain; 26 percent (22 patients) were 80-100 percent improved; 15 percent (13 patients) were 40 to 80% improved; and 15 percent (13 patients) didn’t improve (Sarno, The Divided Mind – The Epidemic of Mindbody Disorders, pages 179-180).

When it comes to why many of Dr. Sarno’s patients have been treated successfully, he might say that their awareness of the subconscious strategy he speaks of caused the strategy to come to an end. I doubt this conclusion partly because of the reasons I stated at the beginning of this chapter, partly because of what I found out about energetic blocks, and partly because resolving their psychological issues is a big part of what Dr. Sarno’s patients do. The list he has them make serves the purpose of helping them deal with their issues. Within his books he provides examples of the psychological issues his patients have dealt with, including issues that caused their pain to come back. It doesn’t make sense to conclude that they got rid of their pain by dealing with the subconscious strategy he speaks of, and then it comes back when a new psychological issue manifests. Also, when his patients don’t respond to his treatment, he recommends that they go through psychotherapy. Such therapy serves the purpose of helping them resolve their psychological issues.

In the 1980’s Boeing kept track of the health of 3,000 employees. Over a four-year period nearly 10 percent of these employees developed back pain. Doctors were surprised to find that structural problems played a negligible role. Employees who constantly lifted heavy objects weren’t more likely to have back pain than employees who didn’t lift heavy objects. Employees who had some form of psychological issue such as depression were more likely to experience back pain.

To conclude, I believe that doctors such as Dr. John Sarno are spot on when they contend that many pain-related problems such as back and neck pain have a psychological origin. I don’t agree with Dr. Sarno’s explanation for how psychological issues cause pain. Nevertheless, many people including myself are grateful that Dr. Sarno came up with a psychological explanation for why many of us experience physical pain. If a person wants to make certain that he gets over his pain, he would do himself a really big favor by considering the possibility that a psychological factor is responsible, rather than a physical factor. Doing so isn’t about being a person who is a hypochondriac or has significant psychological problems. It is simply a matter of being human–all of us have our issues, even though some of us aren’t good at noticing our imperfections. What leads to more pain? Something such as invasive back surgery that in the end doesn’t take care of our problem, or letting go of psychological issues that heal us physically, psychologically, and spiritually?

[10] In this chapter I share what worked for me and what makes sense to me. I am not a medical doctor; therefore, I am not authorized to give medical advice.

[11] The foramen is protective tissue that surrounds the spinal cord.