Back Pain

Carol C. – Back Pain

Carol had a long history of debilitating pain in her back. She had an MRI, which revealed a small cyst sticking into her spine. The doctors had said that the cyst was the cause of her pain. They advised a complicated surgery which would have included a spinal fusion, the removal of the cyst, and the insertion of a rod to straighten the spine. Even if the cyst was creating some of the pain, there was no way of knowing, and certainly no proof, that the cyst was causing all of the pain. This assumption is often made upon seeing a disc “problem;” the disc is the etiology of the pain. Then the surgery is done and the pain either remains or comes back. So what really caused the pain? Intuitively, Carol rebelled against the surgery as it was described to her, especially since in this case the surgery recommended was so drastic.

When she came to me, just on a hunch, I asked her if she had been sitting a lot.  She replied that yes, in fact, she had been writing a book for over a year and sitting most of the day every day. First, we worked on some simple stretches, and made some behavioral changes, like taking breaks from the sitting. I pressed on trigger points in her muscles, and got her to feel them relax in the face of the force being applied. This was the key to alleviating the pain. It was like teaching her to fish for herself rather than buying her a fish. Once she felt the difference in the body as she allowed it to relax, rather than me relaxing it, she was on her way to understanding that she was holding too much tension in her body. You can learn to feel the difference between too much tension and an appropriate amount. We all need some tension in the body; otherwise we would just fall down. It’s the “too much” part that becomes a problem.

Once you become aware of the tension in the body, you can work on breathing to relax the muscles before they get to a painful state. Once the intensity has risen to the point of pain, it takes a considerably higher amount of work to bring it back down again.  Consider the analogy of anger: you know you are getting angry, and count to ten before you are ready to explode; or knowing when to stop eating before your belly hurts. The body always lets us know long before it’s actually time to stop. If you can recognize too much tension in the body you can start to breathe and relax the area before it becomes painful. Ultimately, Carol did have the surgery, but by that time, she had removed 90% of the pain, and today is pain free. She had a much more minor surgery done to remove the cyst, and an easier recovery than she would have had had we not done the work together. If Carol had gotten the complicated surgery, she would not have solved the problem and most likely would have been left with a lot of pain, considering the surgery that was being suggested. This illustrates an important point – again, that surgery to address a problem may sometimes be appropriate, but it doesn’t mean that the surgery is addressing the pain. The premise is that by labeling something as the source of pain, it can hopefully be made to go away through surgery. Surgery may not address the larger picture of working with the entire body, addressing function and management of tension rather than pain. This is an adaptive approach that can be used with any healing modality.