Uncovering the True Source of Pain, Then Unlearning It!
Posted Feb 09 2011 6:32am
Guest Post by Howard Schubiner, MD Author: Unlearn Your Pain Holly’s story: “The spring of my sophomore year in high school, things were going well. I was a straight-A student, had a job, and had just gotten two new puppies. However, everything changed in May that year. Over the course of one week, I was struck with severe lower leg pain, which spread to pain in both arms. I could barely walk and was hospitalized for tests, including an MRI and a spinal tap. The tests were normal, and I was started on pain medication and sent home. Then I developed other symptoms: rapid heartbeat, dizziness, hot and cold flashes, cold feet, tingling in my hands, headaches, difficulty concentrating and severe fatigue. My neurologist did not know what was wrong with me! We drove 12 hours for me to be seen at the Mayo Clinic. After five days and many more tests, the doctors were completely unable to make a diagnosis. “I saw a number of other doctors over the next 2 years and tried many other treatments, including different medications, physical therapy, massage therapy, acupuncture, antibiotics, a special diet and some alternative therapies. A diagnosis of fibromyalgia was finally made, but even the specialist at a major university medical center offered little encouragement, only telling me to take my medication and try to be as active as possible. I felt like my life was lost. “During my last two years of high school, I was rarely able to attend classes. Most of the time, it was too painful to drive, to sit in class, to go up and down stairs, and to take notes. I did my work primarily from home, but it had to be limited because I had so much pain in my arms when I tried to write, and because I was always so tired. I tried to attend college classes for the past two years, but my constant pain and fatigue limited me severely. “One day, my mom told me about this idea that chronic pain could be caused by underlying emotions. I thought that it might apply to other people, but not to me -- my pain was REAL and not ‘in my head.’ However, since I was so desperate, I was willing to try anything! “When I met Dr. Schubiner, he reviewed my whole medical history and helped me understand that the real pain I was feeling was actually caused by stress that had occurred in my family and emotions that I had been holding in. We had been dealing with a number of health and other stressful issues in our family for many years. I didn’t want to make things harder for my family, so I tried to be a ‘good girl’ and never complained, got angry or showed that I was sad or upset. I kept everything inside. “I started working on Dr. Schubiner’s program in his book, Unlearn Your Pain. I did the therapeutic writing, meditations, and self-talk that he suggests. After a few weeks, my back no longer hurt! My energy level started to increase, and my arm and leg pains became much milder and then went away. I could now clearly see that real pain can be caused by stress and emotions. “My life has completely changed. In the past four months since I started the program, I have joined a university service group. Each week, I work a number of hours at a community event, something I never could have done before without terrible pain during or afterward. It is a lot of fun, and I am finally making new friends. I also have a serious boyfriend now, and it is so great to spend time with him, his friends and his family like a ‘normal’ person. “Sometimes I still get pain in my arm or leg, or a bad headache, but I know it’s because there is something that is bothering me. So, I do some writing, address the issue, and I feel better. After nearly four years of constant pain and fatigue, I finally have my life back thanks to Dr. Schubiner.”
Although Holly’s story seems unusual, these are the stories I hear every day. Chronic pain is now reaching epidemic proportions in the U.S. Approximately 50 million people suffer from chronic back and neck pain, fibromyalgia, TMJ pain, tension and migraine headaches, and abdominal and pelvic pain syndromes. The traditional medical approach is to look for a cause of pain in the area where the pain is being felt, and this approach makes so much sense that everyone agrees: If there is pain in the arm, there must be something wrong with the arm!
However, research over the past decade has shown that real pain can occur in a part of the body that is not diseased. Phantom limb syndrome is real pain occurring in an arm or leg that has been amputated. Fibromyalgia pain occurs in muscles and tendons that are structurally normal. The majority of back and neck pain occurs without clear evidence of a structural disease process. The same is true of all of the chronic pain disorders listed above.
So, what is causing the pain? The answer is learned nerve pathways. Nerve connections between the brain and the body can cause real and often severe pain, and these connections can be triggered by an injury or by significant stress. Everyone actually already knows about learned nerve pathways. These are responsible for much of what we do every day, such as how we walk, talk, sign our name, throw a ball, or ride a bicycle. The lower parts of subconscious parts of the brain learn these pathways throughout our lives, and we use them all the time without even being aware that they are being used.
Most people with chronic pain have pain pathways that are developed and continue to cause pain. This explains why so many medical interventions are not able to reduce or eliminate the pain: the doctors are looking in the wrong place.
The reason that pain pathways develop is that stress and emotions activate the parts of the brain, notably the anterior cingulate cortex and the amygdale, that augment pain. Many studies demonstrate this. Most injuries heal within a few weeks, but pain that continues after the injury should have healed is almost always due to learned pain pathways, which have been triggered by stress and emotional reactions.
Fortunately, once the real underlying cause of the pain is determined, most people can reduce or eliminate their pain, even if it’s been present for many years. I have developed a program to help people who are suffering from chronic pain and have published this program in a book, Unlearn Your Pain. People who had suffered with chronic pain for an average of 9 years participated in this 4-week program and had amazing results in a recently published research study. At a 6-month follow-up evaluation, 67% had at least a 30% reduction in pain and 53% had at least a 50% reduction in pain. The program is relatively simple. It guides participants through a series of writing and meditative exercises that help to retrain their brain and nervous system to stop the pain. It also helps them to work on the stressful aspects of their lives to prevent pain from recurring.