Do you have chronic pain that has overtaken your life?
Are doctors not able to find the cause of your pain and treat it effectively? If you are one of the millions of Americans who live with chronic, daily pain that is controlling your life, there is hope! You do not have to just live with the pain. There is a safe and effective treatment that doesn’t involve invasive procedures, surgery or medication. Does this sound too good to be true? Then read on.
First, I would like to share a little about my chronic pain story. I have suffered from some form of chronic physical pain since I was a teenager. I endured back and sciatic pain, off and on, for about thirty-five years. In 2010, I was diagnosed with Idiopathic Peripheral Neuropathy pain, in both feet, and then, in 2012, I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia. I have since been able to eliminate most of the pain symptoms that I had endured for many years. My hope is that, in sharing my story, you will also be able to experience a significant reduction, if not elimination, of your chronic pain.
This article is about chronic physical pain, and other chronic medically unexplained symptoms, that is caused by what’s known as a Psychophysiologic Disorder (PPD). Other terms commonly used for this condition include Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS), Mind-Body Syndrome (MBS), and stress-induced illness. Since I first learned about PPD, in 2015, I have come to believe that all of my chronic physical pain was/is caused by PPD. The education and training that I have had, as a mental health counselor, since that time have further solidified my belief that PPD is absolutely real. This article is also about how I completely eliminated much of my PPD pain and significantly reduced the remaining symptoms.
According to the Psychophysiologic Disorders Association, some of the more common PPD’s can include chronic back and neck pain, Fibromyalgia, migraines, irritable bowel, and chronic fatigue. On their website, it states that Psychophysiologic Disorder is the term for “mind-body symptoms, meaning symptoms that are caused by neural pathways that develop in response to stress, trauma, and repressed emotions.” It goes on to state that: “These learned neural pathways are anatomical changes in the brain, which means that the resulting symptoms are generated in the brain and not “in your head”. The symptoms are very real and can be chronic and debilitating. The good news is that they are also benign and curable!”
So, just to be clear. PPD pain is absolutely 100% real. It is not imaginary. But, the pain is generated in your brain. It is not being caused by any structural abnormality or organ disease. PPD pain can, and often starts, after a physical injury. However, once the original injury has had time to heal, if pain continues, it may likely be PPD. So, it is very important to rule out any serious medical condition before considering PPD as the cause of your chronic pain.
For many people, their chronic pain is not effectively reduced, or managed, enough to allow them to have good enough quality of life. Tragically, for some people, the pain is so severe and/or prolonged that they end their life, to escape the pain. I was one of those people who was not getting enough pain relief from medical interventions. When my pain symptoms were at their worst, I saw two different pain management doctors, over the course of about three years. I had every medication and treatment they had to offer. But, nothing worked. This is because the medical community is treating the pain as if it’s caused by a structural abnormality or organ disease. They don’t look at, and treat, the whole person. They don’t consider the role that stress, trauma, and emotions play, and how they affect the brain and the body.
From 2009 to 2012, before I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, I had gone to fifteen different specialists and had just about every diagnostic test available, and tried many different treatments and medications. And, no one could tell me what was causing my pain. Eventually, I was referred to pain management. Over the course of about 2-3 years, I went to 2 different pain management clinics. They tried all kinds of treatments, including trigger point injections, nerve blocks, and epidural steroid injections under anesthesia. I also did trails for a spinal cord stimulator implant and for a continuous epidural pump implant. Neither of these worked for me. I spent thousands of dollars on medical costs, including $5000 to see a doctor who said that he could “cure” Fibromyalgia pain. He was a very caring doctor and had the best of intentions but he wasn’t able to “cure” my pain because he was treating it as if it was a purely physical condition.
Then, one day, everything changed. It was in September, 2015, and I was searching the internet to try and find some answers when I discovered the work of Dr. John Sarno. He was a doctor, in New York City, and he was the pioneer in diagnosing and treating PPD. Although, the term that he used to describe this condition was Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS). He developed a program, in collaboration with mental health professionals, to treat his patients who had PPD. He also had written some books about PPD. I thought, “What do I have to lose?” I had tried everything that modern medicine had to offer but I was still in pain. So, I bought two of his books: Healing Back Pain and The Mindbody Prescription.
When his books arrived, I devoured them! While I was reading Healing Back Pain, the pain in my mid-back, which had been there for months, went away. I know that may be hard to believe but that’s what happened to me. Within four months, about 90% of my pain was gone! The sciatic pain, and the chronic back and neck pain, was completely gone. The Fibromyalgia pain was completely gone! And, the chronic feet pain was significantly better. I went back to being physically active, playing basketball, and other sports that I loved. I started to enjoy my life again. I had gotten my life back!
Unfortunately, some of the pain that had gone away started to gradually return. What I learned was that I still had some work to do to heal the effects of my childhood trauma. I had to learn that one of the main effects of childhood trauma is the development of a dysregulated autonomic nervous system (ANS). My childhood trauma caused me to feel unsafe and to be hypervigilant to threat. I started to perceive threat constantly which caused my threat/stress response to be “on” all the time. I had to learn to regulate my ANS so that I was spending less time in my sympathetic nervous system and more time in my parasympathetic nervous system, where we are meant to be. I needed to learn to recognize what was triggering my threat response and to interrupt it, as soon as possible, to mitigate the effects of the stress hormones on my system.
Speaking of childhood trauma and stress, research shows that the more adverse experiences that people have, during their childhood, the higher their risk is for developing chronic physical and mental health conditions, later in life. This includes chronic pain, and other chronic symptoms, that are medically unexplained. Some of these adverse childhood experiences (or ACE’s) include things like emotional, physical, and sexual abuse; parental substance abuse; domestic violence in the home; parental separation or divorce, etc. I personally experienced all of these different adversities. Remember my back pain started when I was fifteen years old, for no apparent reason? Well, now I believe that it was because of the trauma and toxic stress that I was exposed to during my childhood. (For more information about ACE’s and the impact they can have, visit: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/childabuseandneglect/acestudy/index.html.)
I want to say something about the importance of connection, in the healing process. We are born to connect with others. I believe that a lot of emotional suffering that human beings experience is because they don’t feel connected. People who have experienced trauma in childhood, especially, have a difficult time connecting, first with themselves, but also with others. Remember that one of the causes of PPD is stress. And, relationships are stressful, even healthy ones. However, if someone is in an unhealthy, or even a toxic relationship, this causes a significant amount of stress. On the other hand, healthy relationships are healing. When we are loved, supported, and treated with respect, by our friends, family, and partners, it helps to heal the wounds caused during our childhood. It helps us to see ourselves through the eyes of those who love us. It helps us to believe in ourselves and that we are worthy of love.
I am fortunate to have this kind of relationship with my spouse. For those of you who don’t feel connected, that will be a part of your healing process – learning to connect. If you don’t have anyone in your life right now who you feel loves and supports you, I know that’s hard. But, remember that part of the healing process is learning to make those healing connections. And, just as important, to learn to give those things to yourself. I believe that everyone is capable of doing that.
As a mental health professional, I should tell you that PPD is not recognized by many in the mental health profession as a diagnosable and treatable mental health condition. It is not listed in the diagnostic manual (DSM-V) that is used to diagnose people with mental health disorders. That being said, it is both my personal and professional opinion that PPD is 100% real and should be recognized as a psychological condition, and be included in the DSM-V.
It is also my opinion that by not understanding how to diagnose and treat PPD, mental health professionals are doing a major disservice to their clients who suffer from chronic PPD pain. Over the past ten years, since my chronic pain became more constant, and severe, I met with three different therapists. They didn’t understand PPD or how to treat it. I spent about five years seeing them on a weekly basis. Two of them where open to the concept but did not have any specific training on how to treat someone with PPD. While they were all well-meaning, they were not able to help me with my PPD pain. Unfortunately, I’m afraid, this experience is all too common for people with PPD.
I want to end this article on a positive and hopeful note. Doing this work on myself has been extremely challenging but also has made such a big difference, in my life. I feel a deeper sense of joy and peace, than I ever have in my life. I feel more calm and present. My self-esteem and self-confidence also has improved significantly. Don’t get me wrong, I still have some PPD pain but it is much better than it was. I have learned not to respond to my PPD pain with fear, not to focus on it too much, and to not let it stop me from living and enjoying my life, and following my passions. I believe that as I continue my life-long journey to connect with myself, with my emotions, and with others, that this will help me continue to rewire my brain to the point that it feels safe enough and won’t need to create physical symptoms to get my attention.
Finally, my experience with PPD pain led me to decide to become a mental health counselor. My mission, and my passion, are to bring awareness to PPD and help people to heal their PPD pain. If you, or someone you know, is struggling with chronic physical pain, and other chronic symptoms, that you think might be caused by PPD, please go to the PPDA website at: https://ppdassociation.org. You will find a lot of helpful information and resources, including recommended books, research articles, and a directory of doctors and mental health professionals who specialize in treating PPD.