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It’s TMS not PMS

March 16, 2014

Several weeks ago I showed up for work in writhing pain, holding my lower back and grimacing unhappily. I put in two hours of token effort before going home to lie on the floor with my knees elevated. The contractor I’ve been working for was understanding, having been through similar issues with his own back. He told me to rest up and recover for the next project.

He doesn’t have back trouble anymore. Besides a wonky elbow he’s healthy and strong and able to do everything he could two decades before, when he was half his age. The next time we met he – tentatively – offered to loan me a book. He thought it could help if I was open to it.

The book is Healing Back Pain by John E. Sarno, M.D. It explains a medical diagnosis he has observed and chronicled called tension myositis syndrome, the gist of which is that back pain – and many other bodily aches – are caused by an unconscious cranial mechanism with the purpose of repressing emotions we would rather not deal with.

At first the thesis sounds like ‘you’re causing your own pain’ or ‘you’re faking it’ but that’s not at all what he’s saying. He’s simply describing the connection between what goes on in our minds and the effect it has on our bodies. That his diagnosis isn’t recognized by mainstream medicine and culture is understandable – for several reasons. We’ve become attached to the idea of physical ailments and their trajectory of treatment: x-rays, MRI’s, surgery, physical therapy, limited abilities, pain management…

We’ve become attached to the pain, too. Think about it. If you complain of back pain everyone understands. You take a sick day and no one gives you a hard time. But were you to complain of emotional tension it would likely get chalked up to PMS – for either gender.

And, finally, there’s the pharmaceutical industry and its bottomless pockets. What would it do if 57 to 75 percent of its patients suddenly stopped needing pain medication?

Sarno’s recovery program is unique and shocking. No drugs are prescribed. Physical therapy is actually not recommended. The penicillin for TMS is knowledge, to steal a line from the doctor himself. Once you understand that your unconscious mind is trying to distract you from dealing with your issues, the need for the physical pain goes away.

This doesn’t mean your emotional issues disappear. But admitting them is the first step towards facing them, and the truth does tend to set you free – however painful letting go ends up being.

When I was in junior high my dad – a cabinet-maker – had surgery for a herniated disc. He’d been in severe pain for weeks, perhaps months, leading up to the surgery. It went well and after an extensive therapy program he recovered, but didn’t return to cabinet-making. Instead he joined my mom’s business as a caterer until I finished high school and everyone moved on with their lives. Now he’s making cabinets again, but – as far as I know – his back is healthy and strong. Without casting any judgment upon him, his doctors, or anything else, it’s interesting to look at the situation through Dr. Sarno’s eyes.

Maybe there was some underlying tension in my dad’s life that caused the herniated disc. Maybe getting out of the cabinet-making profession cured it as much as the surgery. But if he’s making cabinets today without back pain, the issue could have been something else that has since been dealt with – or repressed in some other way (sorry for the psychoanalysis if you’re reading this, by the way).

Frankly I’m flabbergasted we have yet to accept the mind/body connection. With a nation prone to mental disorders? It’s like the joke about the lunatic who helped the man with the flat tire: we might be crazy, but are we really that stupid?

A couple of days ago I felt a twinge in my side. I had a lot to do and there was no time for a meltdown. The contractor who’d lent me the book was leaving for Costa Rica for two weeks (certainly contributing to his excellent health) and I was in charge of all his jobs until he got back. With the added responsibility had come a substantial raise, but he’d also left my phone number on his voicemail and I was getting calls from upset sub-contractors and from new clients wanting estimates done before he got back. It was enough to make a guy stress out.

I reminded myself of the situation. I took a couple of deep breaths to send oxygen through my body (oxygen deprivation causes muscle spasms; page 64). I focused on the raise and admitted the extra money wasn’t coming for free: there was a lot on my plate and it was stressful.

The pain never manifested. There’s a heck of a lot to do on Monday but I’m up for it – in body and mind. I may be part of the 57 to 75 percent who get better simply from reading the book. Now that’s medicine I can understand.

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