I suffered from back pain on and off for about 18 years. My severe sciatic pain was periodic for more than a decade. It made it hard to walk at times and caused a sensation that conjured the image of being stabbed in the ass with an ice pick. I saw chiropractors throughout that time period; I tried acupuncture, exercise, massage, yoga, private Pilates lessons. Just about everything helped temporarily, but the pain always came back with undiminished and even increasing intensity.
But that’s only half the story. The other half was the fear. Every time it came back, that meant the most recent solution had failed, that I had one less option for cure. Was I getting worse? It seemed like it. What the fuck was going to happen in another decade? Would I be immobilized at 50? What was wrong with me?
After one of the worst bouts, when I spent most of a play rehearsal lying on my back in agony, trying not to cry, I called a friend to commiserate with my fears and flare-ups. He told me about some guy and some book that he had heard about.
“I think it’s about how a lot of people’s back pain is psychosomatic.”
“Of course, I don’t know. I’ve never had back pain.”
“But Howard Stern swears by it.”
But I let him keep talking. A friend of his had read the book and said it cured him. Howard Stern had had back pain for years and brought the author on his show to ridicule and mock him because he (like me) knew his pain was fucking real and who the fuck was this fucker to say it was psychosomatic? Then he read the book and it worked. Skeptics are impressive advocates.
It took a few weeks. Or maybe a few years. My friend had first mentioned this book to me long before, but my resistance had finally worn down. Anyway, I did pick it up. In practical terms, all I had to lose was 11 bucks and a few hours of my time. Given that, I am consumed with why it took me so long to read it. I wanted to be out of pain. I spent thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours over nearly half of my life trying to be out of pain. Yet I, like a demon shrinking from a bible, resisted a short paperback that might, without any additional expense or effort, put me literally out of my misery.
The basic idea of the book is that we can subconsciously refer emotional pain to a convenient & logical part of the body in order to distract ourselves from dealing with issues we think we don’t have the capacity to deal with. Referred pain also happens in the body itself. It’s kind of cool, really. If you’re experiencing really intense pain in one spot, you might suddenly feel a sharp pain somewhere else. It’s your brain dissipating what it interprets might be too much for you. (Totally unscientific, non-medical explanation there.) Well, this guy takes that same idea, but theorizes that emotional pain can be translated into physical pain by cutting off oxygen flow to part of the body, typically one where you’ve had a previous injury, or have been told there’s something wrong with you: that spot is a prepped landing pad. His theory is that, while of course some people do have structural, physical problems that bring on physical, treatable back pain, the astronomical increase in diagnoses over the last several decades is in large part due to this impressive psycho-somatic engineering. (And while this may sound even more gooey than my explanation above, the author is a medical doctor who arrived at his conclusion after years of treating back pain.)
My back pain started in high school, soon after a chiropractor my father dragged me to told me my spine was chock full of subluxations, probably from years of gymnastics. It stayed fairly mild until a certain year when I was living far from my friends in a city I didn’t like, working a miserable job, preparing for a marriage I agreed to under ultimatum. The times when it had flared up worst – tech week, a conflict with a family member, a writing deadline, a breakup, etc. – fit the narrative.
The book’s magic solution is to avoid changing your physical behavior: don’t go to a chiropractor, don’t take drugs, don’t stop exercising – keep doing what you do, but address the issues going on in your life, outside of your body. And it has worked for me, not because my spine is perfect – it’s a twisted river of disks – but because those imperfections aren’t causing any serious problems. Whenever my back pain acts up, I focus on my life instead of my pain. And it never gets too bad and it goes away quickly. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s by far the best and cheapest one I’ve found.
This boring back bio is mostly here to set up a foundation for questions about pain that I find really fascinating. I have started ½ dozen posts about pain over the past few months and they’ve all gotten too convoluted to refine or publish. Since the avoidance of pain and pursuit of pleasure is, according to the Second Noble Truth of Buddhism, the cause of all suffering in life, it seems worthwhile (and fun!) to dig into that well more deeply, now that I’ve got my platform constructed. Yay, pain!