For many years I suffered from excruciating back pain, rarely letting up for more than a half an hour of sitting still. In truth, it was not so terrible, especially when I was on my feet, but let’s just say that it affected my life in a big way. A few years ago I visited a back specialist who rigorously tested every muscle on my body and finally confirmed that my pain was being caused by a curved spine that was putting a lot of pressure on my lower back when I sit. In fact, this diagnosis made an even greater impression on me since the long and scary name given for my ‘condition’ was also pronounced on my father who also suffered from a bad back. Put simply, I was suffering from a hereditary lower back problem due to my curved spine. My father and I were instructed to follow rigorous exercises and stand for several hours a week next to a wall, totally straight and looking straight ahead –
you can imagine my mom’s face as she walked in to a room with her husband and son staring straight ahead in what looked like a police line up for an hour at a time. Needless to say, my father, a straight-down-the-line, methodical lawyer followed his regimented programme to the letter, whereas I did the exercises now and again when the pain got too much. In fact, as the years progressed, my wife would often trip over me in the middle of the night as I could often be found scrawled across the floor and halfway up the wall trying to stretch my back so I could get back to sleep in a comfortable position.
So what happened to us?
Let’s fast forward a few years to see our progress:
My father is relatively pain free, he still spends some time stretching, he is very careful about what he does and what he lifts, and he rarely goes anywhere without a back support, but in general he manages to lead a very sporty life, playing tennis at a very high standard despite his relatively senior age.
Me, well up until a year ago I was doing ok. My occasional exercises and soccer games seemed to keep a lot of the pain at bay, but I was still known to climb the walls upside down trying to relieve some night time pain every once in a while. I never used a back support and was not so careful about what I did or didn’t do although I never slouched on a chair – I just sort of dealt with the pain when it came.
This was all up until a friend lent me a book called “Healing Back Pain” by Dr. John Sarno. After reading the book once I became almost 100% pain free and I’ve not needed to do any night time acrobatics up the wall to date.
I could not do any justice to Dr Sarno’s ‘healing method’ in this article, but in very brief terms he tells us that largely, back pain is not real. It stems from a psychological issue that we need to deal with in our lives, like stress or a new job, or family problems, and rather than allowing us to deal with these issues, the brain sends out pain signals to the back so that the ‘victim’ is distracted from his or her real problems.
The book even goes on to explain my curved spine in this way. There is no denying that I have a curved spine, but is that what was giving me the back pain? For however long man has been in the world, his modern makeup has not changed so dramatically to make 65% of Americans claim that they currently or they have suffered from serious back pain. Is it likely that so many people will all of a sudden be born with curved backs or weak bones? As my grandma tells me, there was no such thing as back pain during the war, people just got on with life! So it seems, claims this book, that America’s chronic back pain is a consequence of psychological problems rather that physical ones.
So how did it get rid of my back pain?
Well I’m not sure how it works exactly, but just by recognising that the pain is not real, the brain stops sending pain signals to the back – its cover is blown. After I told my brain that I didn’t have a back problem, I wasn’t going to do the exercises and I was going to slouch on my chair I became pain free – it really was that simple. This concept struck me in a big way as I was preparing for the holy day of Yom Kippur. I’m going to share something with you, I’m sometimes a little bit mean to my neighbour, a nice man who I can’t really fault or point at something I don’t like about him. I justify my actions by thinking “he rubs me up the wrong way” and “I just don’t like him”. I tell myself that my nature is not to get on with him and I let myself off easy. But what if, just like my back pain was not real, my ‘natural’ tendency against this person is not real? What if it is just a smoke screen to hide a deep issue I have with myself? This was my thought today, and I’ve decided that just like I told myself a year ago that my back pain wasn’t real and I was going to live as if nothing bothered me, I’m going to tell myself that my ‘natural’ feelings against my neighbour aren’t real and I’m going to try and live as if they are not there and act towards him like I would anyone else (relatively nicely), this way I hope that my negative feelings will just go away and then I’ll be able to discover the real reason (within me) why I don’t seem to like this person.
Wish me luck…
Danny J, NY