Conquering Chronic Pain
How the Body-Mind Connection Works
by Ronica O’Hara
For three decades, David Hanscom was a top-ranked orthopedic surgeon in Seattle who daily put the scalpel to injured, deformed and twisted spines. Privately, he writhed in pain himself. He was beset over 15 years with burning feet, insomnia, tinnitus, anxiety, skin rashes, crushing chest pain, depression, sweats, heart palpitations and tension headaches, among other symptoms.
That put him among the estimated 50 million American adults afflicted with chronic pain for which relief is hard to come by and often short-lived. The standard medical approaches of surgery and injections often don’t work well or last long for many patients, research shows. Opioids, once a standby, are now prescribed sparingly after being implicated in half a million overdose deaths. Treatment is especially elusive for the one in six adults and 30 to 40 percent of primary care patients with pain or chronic conditions considered “medically unexplained”.
As a result, integrative pain management, which focuses on both mind and body and incorporates medical and holistic approaches, is growing in importance. Major medical centers such as the Mount Sinai Health System and Cleveland Clinic, as well as practitioners such as chiropractors and homeopaths, offer dozens of modalities to turn around painful conditions. Sometimes a single simple method works quickly for a patient with a straightforward symptom; more often, it takes a combination of approaches over time to reverse pain, especially if it is complex, sustained or recurring.
Launching on his own healing path, Hanscom came to a critical understanding: The abuse he had suffered as a child from a rage-filled mother, coupled with emotional repression and a fierce drive to excel as a surgeon, produced his high levels of anxiety. It turbocharged his central nervous system and set off a cascade of reactions that fed ever-rising levels of pain.
“Your mind and body function as a unit with no separation,” he says. “Chronic pain results when your body is exposed to sustained levels of stress hormones, excitatory neurotransmitters and inflammatory protein. Your brain is sensitized and the nerve conduction speed is faster, so you physically feel more pain. It’s not ‘all in your mind’—it’s a normal physio-logical process.”
After six months of intense inner work focused on his rage, Hanscom calmed his overwrought nervous system and his symptoms “essentially disappeared.” He began applying his experience to hundreds of spine patients, helping the great majority of them to avoid surgery altogether. In the book Back in Control, he describes his approach, which is designed for people with pain that is not caused by underlying structural or organ issues. He recommends these initial steps.
- n Getting at least seven hours of sleep a night, which may require sleeping pills or natural methods.
- Doing expressive writing twice a day, which involves writing down in longhand whatever is on the mind using graphic and descriptive language for 10 to 30 minutes, and then promptly tearing it up. Neurological research shows that this simple practice rewires the brain. “Some people experience remarkable pain relief right away,” he says.
- Practicing “active meditation” throughout the day by mindfully focusing each time on a sight, sound or sensation for five to 10 seconds.
For deep, sustained healing, he stresses the importance of forgiveness, gratitude, self-discovery, exploring a spiritual path, relearning playfulness and connecting with others. Medication may be necessary initially, he says, and as pain levels recede, most people become ready to improve their diet and exercise more.
Understanding the mind/body connection is key in pain management, concurs gastroenterologist David D. Clarke, M.D., author of They Can’t Find Anything Wrong! and president of the Portland, Oregon-based Psychophysiologic Disorders Association. “When medical evaluation shows no problems with organs or structures, then the pain is being generated by the brain, similar to what happens in phantom limb pain, where people feel pain in the location of an amputated arm or leg,” he says.
“Chronic pain generated by the brain generally occurs due to stress, an emotional/psychological trauma or strong negative emotions (often toward people the patient cares about) that are not fully recognized. Often, these issues began due to adverse childhood experiences, which can be anything you would not want a child of your own to endure. I recommend people explore these possibilities on their own, with a loved one or with a therapist.”
That process might sound daunting, but so is suffering crippling pain. “The most important thing for people to know is that pain can be successfully treated, relieved and often cured with the right techniques,” says Clarke.
Health writer Ronica O’Hara can be reached at OHaraRonica@gmail.com.
Direct Your Own Care Journey is a free, online course for healing chronic pain. Designed by David Hanscom, M.D., it includes an experiential app, group sessions, video tutorials and webinars at TheDocJourney.com.
Stress-Disease Information, including videos, a webinar-based course, recent research and a list of practitioners, can be found at ppdassociation.org, the website of the Psychophysiologic Disorders Association, founded by stress-disease expert David Clarke, M.D.
American Chronic Pain Association, at theacpa.org, lists treatments, clinical trials, support groups and other resources.