The Remedy to Chronic Pain Lies in the Head

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

Nothing can offend a pain patient more than to hear "your pain is in your head." He or she will most likely think, "Am I being told that I am making it up?" Sometimes, persons with chronic pain actually encounter such insensitive questions, and sometimes, the former "read" it in the innocent questions, comments, and concerns of other people. Yes, it is true that pain changes a person's entire life including the interaction between the partners, other family members, employers and healthcare professionals.

No, chronic pain sufferers are not "making up their pain." Their pain is real. The pain is indeed in the body and not in the head. However, having worked with pain patients for the last 15 years, and having personally suffered from chronic pain for the last 9 months, I can say this with confidence, "The remedy for a chronic pain lies in the head." Notice that my statement primarily refers to the "remedy" and I recognize that suffering or relief from pain is not entirely at one's disposal.

Medication for pain has a limited value. When pain persists, the "law of diminishing returns" comes into effect. A pain sufferer needs progressively increasing doses of pain medication with diminishing relief. When a chronic pain patient reaches a high level of tolerance for medication, he or she must trade a short-lived and only partial pain relief for an unacceptable level of drowsiness, lethargy, and other side effects. Surgery too holds little promise unless there is a definite indication for it. Yes, if you have broken bone pieces irritating the surrounding nerves, surgery can do a lot for you. But that is rarely the case.

So what do you do? The "nerve block shots" that once worked as magic don't work any longer. Specialists of various sorts have done their "thing" and gone, but the pain is still there. The common self-help remedies, such as the resting, heat and cold application don't offer any noticeable relief. Now it's you and your pain standing face to face. Only you can make the difference, no one else can. It's entirely up to you. The two tools at your disposal are your body and your mind. Use them. Don't give up the medical treatment you are following. However, add a few mind-body techniques to help you control the pain.

Do you have any unresolved issue in you emotional life? You must do something about them. Don't dismiss them by asking yourself, "What relevance do they have to my pain?" They are relevant because they can impair your capacity to heal, or continue to cause emotional pain. Emotional pain does convert into physical pain just as one form of energy can convert into another form of energy. Seek help, if required.

As some people are "accident prone," some are "pain prone." The following conditions are associated with pain proneness: history of physical, emotional or sexual abuse; recent loss or trauma; acute or excessive and prolonged stress; social isolation or poor support system, poor social and coping skills, or chronic problems of anger, depression, or anxiety.

You wish the pain to go away and it doesn't. You follow your doctor's orders and the pain is still there. The pain that stays "forever" causes its own set of problems. For example, it may cause a sense of loss of control. It may even make you fearful of the future. Severe pain may cause mental and physical symptoms of anxiety such as, the fear of the worst happening, heart palpitation, shortness of breath, tremors, dizziness, etc. You need psychological education and stress hardiness to recognize and control these symptoms.

Anger is perhaps the most important emotion underlying chronic pain. Physician John Sarno, the author of "Healing Back Pain" that has sold over a quarter million copies, tells his pain patients what anyone would hate to hear most, "It's all in your head." Sarno believes that most pain is the result of suppressed anger. Some feelings of anger are simply unacceptable to us. Sometimes we feel helpless because we can't do a thing about the things that make us angry. Our minds may channel the suppressed, helpless or plain chronic anger into pain. Sarno recommends that when his patients experience pain, they should tell their brains such things as, "I know what you are trying to do." Following this advice has ended years of suffering for legions of pain patients.

To get a mental handle on pain, forgive everybody who has wronged you. Let go of any regrets, grudge or resentment you may have held in your heart and even if these emotions are entirely justifiable. Do not let the pain deprive you of your dignity and self-respect even though you may have to depend on others to care for you. Focus on things that you can do and set aside what you can't do. Find new hobbies and interests if you can't pursue old ones. Find solutions for everyday problems and activities that are affected by the pain. Watch TV for laughter and information only. Get to the level of exercise that you can perform. Inactivity and lack of exercise is bad for pain. Above all, remember that you are more than your body.

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Copyright 1996, Mind Publications 


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