I was a happy, healthy, former collegiate gymnast, successful Harvard-educated environmental health scientist, wife, and mother of two amazing daughters—until I ruptured a disc in my neck at the age of forty.
I wish I could claim I did a double back flip and landed on my head, but the truth isn't that glamorous. I rolled over in my sleep and ruptured the C6-7 disc in my neck. At the time, I thought maybe my neck had been weakened by the whitewater raft I had bounced on my head thirteen years earlier. But now, I understand that was only one piece of the puzzle. Each and every micro- and macro-trauma I'd suffered over the years had a cumulative effect on my body.
Then on September 1, 2005, I woke up besieged with unrelenting, burning, shooting, jabbing neck pain. From that day forward, my body no longer could function as it was supposed to. But that didn't mean I couldn't heal.
After the disc ruptured (although at first I didn't know that's what had happened), I experienced excruciating pain in my neck and down my arm. I endured this for nearly a full month while trying to get a diagnosis. I desperately hoped a doctor could do something to relieve my pain.
My doctor first prescribed painkillers. They didn't help. Then she prescribed physical therapy. That was impossible for me to do since I couldn't stand, sit, or move without experiencing searing pain. Slowly I lost neurological function in my left arm. Within a month, which felt like a million years because of the pain, I was told neck surgery was necessary to restore function to my arm.
On October 1, 2005, I had two discs removed and three of my cervical vertebrae fused (C5, C6, and C7). After surgery, the excruciating nerve pain decreased and I regained the use of my arm. But I remained in unbearable pain for another two years.
For months after the surgery, my surgeons appeared baffled that I wasn't getting better. They reassured me it was simply because of my long neck. In hopes of the “full” recovery they were sure I'd attain, they prescribed painkillers, muscle relaxants, cortisone shots, and traditional physical therapy. Each month they promised I'd be better in “just one more month.” Still, I was hardly functioning, struggling to take care of my four-year-old and ten-year-old and to keep up with my job. Most of my professional work got done at home. I would lie on my futon with my laptop on my knees, resting my head and neck on pillows stacked against the wall. I could barely stand or sit up for more than fifteen minutes without burning, jabbing pain penetrating my upper back, neck, and head.
After nine painful months, I was referred to a physical medicine and rehabilitation doctor (PM&R). He diagnosed me with myofascial pain syndrome (MPS). Someone finally knew the cause of my suffering! My new doctor prescribed more physical therapy, more steroid shots, and more oral medications. When those didn't resolve the problem, I became nearly suicidal. I couldn't take the pain anymore. Why wasn't it going away? Why did I continue to suffer every day?
Many of the oral medications I tried didn't help, nor did traditional physical therapy. The steroid shots (trigger point injections) did bring down my pain from about a daily average of eight (on a scale of one to ten) to around five, but I was still living a miserable life. I found that lying down relieved my horrible pain better than anything else, so I spent the majority of my days horizontal.
I discovered the missing link: the mind-body connection and its effect on healing. I came to understand this concept by way of Dr. John Sarno (author of The Mindbody Prescription, and other related books) and John F. Barnes (originator of the JFB method of myofascial release [MFR] physical therapy and author of Healing Ancient Wounds).
After reading Sarno's book about the role emotions play in many types of chronic pain, I experienced a temporary decrease in the level of my pain. I began to realize, much to the disbelief of my scientific mind, that our emotions can play a role in the perpetuation of chronic pain. But reading his book didn't “cure” me as it had for serveral people cited in Sarno's book and for other people I'd talked to. It turned out my troubles were deeper than I ever could have imagined. It wasn't until I read John F. Barnes' book and received treatment from Barnes-trained MFR physical therapists that I fully understood and felt for myself the true mind-body connection. Barnes reinforced Sarno's point that there could be an emotional component to physical pain. He also explained how the body physically reacts to both physical and emotional micro- and macro-traumas.
Bodywork by Barnes' physical therapists helped my body reveal that it had been holding on to many hidden emotions and past traumas. (See JFB-MFR PT, also listed on the Treatments page). I was stuck in a pattern of initial healing gone awry. When I ruptured the disc in my neck, my normal healing response was to brace against further injury. But the muscles never relaxed. They continued to hold on, even after repair of the structural problem. Through Barnes' mind-body approach to MFR, I discovered that many traumas had accumulated in my body. I was still subconsciously holding my muscles tight to brace against underlying fear, anger, shame, and other emotions.
When I finally began to understand that I had the power to “let go” of those feelings and the associated muscle tightness, some of my tensed muscles loosened, and my pain greatly diminished. I went from being barely able to stand, sit, or walk for more than fifteen minutes to hiking in Alaska five years after I initially ruptured the disc in my neck.
It took time to accept that there was more to my pain than a simple structural problem. Not until I recognized this and began to face my past traumas did I experience significant and lasting relief. And although I’ve improved considerably, I'm one of those difficult cases in which the healing isn’t quite complete. But having made as much progress as I have, I’m confident I can make more.
Myofascial release therapy was, ultimately, the key to discovering that my mind was holding my body prisoner. After two years of trying one ineffective treatment after another, MFR bodywork helped me begin to release subconscious bracing patterns and tension in my body, which were contributing to my pain. Of course, everyone is unique, and chronic pain sufferers have used various other avenues to help release the hold their mind has on their body. These mind-body approaches include yoga, meditation, acupuncture, talk therapy, and simply reading about how the mind works and how others have healed once they addressed their mindsets and the emotions associated with them. [See Mind-body approaches under the Treatments tab.]
The fact that emotions may be feeding chronic pain does not, however, indicate the sufferer has a weak character. In fact, it takes great strength to hold in negative emotions and trauma. Unfortunately, when we restrain our emotions in an attempt to be “strong,” we are only pushing them aside. They’re still within us, and they can wreak havoc on our bodies if ignored. [See Trauma & Chronic Pain tab.]
The fear of doing greater damage and being in more pain sometimes holds people back from healing. And sometimes simple acknowledgment of those fears frees them from pain. When they realize they aren't irreversibly physically damaged, they can begin to be active again and move beyond the pain, as described in books such as those by Sarno, Ozanich, Brady & Proctor, and Schubiner. [See Mind-body explanation of chronic pain also listed within the Resources page.] At other times, buried anger, guilt, or shame from the past or present can weigh on people, keeping them locked in tension and pain.
If you have tried “traditional” medicine and are still suffering (and if a doctor has cleared you of underlying diseases, broken bones, or other acute structural injuries), I encourage you to look inward, using whatever method suits you, to see whether emotions may be playing a role in your pain.
Addressing underlying emotions and trauma was instrumental in my ultimate ability to begin healing. Unfortunately, it required digging into painful memories. This can be a slow and arduous process, especially when deep, complicated emotions are involved.
If you would like to read more about my roller coaster ride through debilitating pain, stay tuned for my memoir, Defying Gravity: An Athlete's Journey of Healing from Chronic Myofascial Pain. For more snippets of my story, you can follow my blog. Otherwise, click here to find books containing personal stories that have given me hope.