The Body Speaks

IMG_0146I met Ana, a young photographer, at a beautiful beach-side resort and we spent the morning strolling around shooting author pictures.

When I told her that my life was now very quiet, she confided that her life had a manic pace, and she needed to stop running around so much. A bit later, she told me that her sister died two weeks before from liver cancer, and it was shocking because she was in her twenties and had lived a very clean life. When we walked up the steps near the beach she commented that her legs were tired and sore.

An hour later, I mentioned that I had just seen a TED talk by Dr. Lissa Rankin where she described how suppressed emotion could cause internal stress and compromise health. Manda replied, “I’ve been trying to exercise to relieve some of the stress, but I’m just so tired. I usually jog about three miles, but last night I could only walk, and today my legs feel like I ran a marathon.”

“Your body knows. What do you think it’s telling you?”

“Stop running.”

On some level, Ana already knew what she needed to do to heal, and now she was listening.

Anatomy of the Mind/Body Connection

In her TED talk, Dr. Lissa Rankin gives the following simple explanation of the mind/body connection.

2014-03-08 13.29.21 HDRIn a stress response, negative thoughts/beliefs/feelings are perceived as a threat. This signals the lower parts of the brain. Messages are sent from the amygdala to the hypothalamus to the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland signals the adrenal glands, which then excrete the hormones cortisone, norepinephrine and epinephrine. This stress response triggers the sympathetic nervous system, and puts us into the fight/flight mode.

According to Dr. Rankin, most people have 50 stress responses a day, and some people can have more than twice as many. I suspect that my body was often in this stressed, fight/flight mode throughout my life, and this contributed to the development of my pain condition.

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The parasympathetic nervous system gives us the counter balancing relaxation response and contains the hormones oxytocin, dopamine, and the endorphins. Dr. Rankin postulates that when the nervous system is relaxed, the body’s natural self-repair mechanisms flip on. Some activities that the research shows may turn on the parasympathetic/relaxed side of the nervous system are: meditation, creativity, massage, yoga, tai chi, friends, work you love, laughing, exercising, and playing with animals.

To heal my pain condition, it was helpful to discover my unconscious thoughts/beliefs/feelings that were stressful, and work through them. Then they no longer became a trigger for the fight/flight response in my body. It was also helpful to actively engage the parasympathetic nervous system, and many of the activities that were effective in the research were also helpful for me. When I learned to live on the calmer side of the nervous system, it helped to restore my happiness and health.

Multifaceted Pain

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In a guest-blog post on the International Pelvic Pain Society’s website, Diane Lee PT made this comment:

“A thorough evaluation often reveals many past injuries, thoughts/beliefs, and emotional states that have collectively led to changes in strategies for posture, movement, continence and pelvic organ support.”

This statement mirrors my direct experience with chronic pelvic pain and expands the perspective of the traditional physical therapy evaluation. Awesome.

Shifting Pain Perspectives

I wrote this letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal. They didn’t publish it, so I decided to share it here!

Why Women Are Living in the Discomfort Zone

January 31, 2014

In the essay “Why Women Are Living in the Discomfort Zone,” Judy Foreman presents evidence that women suffer more from chronic pain and receive less attention from the medical community than do men. She confides that when her physician suggested her chronic neck pain may have an emotional component, she was insulted, and that when another doctor focused on her physical condition, she improved.

Similar to Ms. Foreman, I suffered with chronic neck pain for years, and when a physical therapist suggested that my condition may be related to control issues in my life, I was livid. I am also a physical therapist, and that the PT considered my pain to be anything more than physical seemed wrong and condescending.

My perspective shifted, however, when I worked for more than five years to heal from debilitating pelvic pain using a plethora of treatments from Western, Eastern, and alternative sides of medicine. Over the years, I experienced numerous direct connections between my thoughts, emotions, and pain. When I look back at my neck pain, the physical reasons for my pain are clear. However, I now also appreciate that the pain ramped up in situations that were directly related to the emotional issues I eventually uncovered.

During a second bout with chronic pain, I healed at all levels, and my internal and external life transformed in positive ways. I learned that my pain was not only a sign that my body was breaking down, it was also a signal that it was time to look, process, and heal at all levels of my being. This holistic perspective is interesting and worthwhile to consider when investigating why women suffer more chronic pain than men.

Mary Ruth Velicki MS, DPT

Author, Healing Through Chronic Pain

Los Angeles, CA

Changing the Message

fireIn a recent essay in the Wall Street Journal, Judy Foreman, the author of “A Nation in Pain,” states, “Chronic pain, by the way, isn’t just acute pain that doesn’t go away after a few months; it’s a transformation of the nervous system that can literally shrink the brain.” Yikes! When I was in pain this comment would have made me feel completely out of control, discouraged and fearful.

While it is true that prolonged pain can change the nervous system, these changes don’t have to be permanent. When we activate different neural pathways that are calming and pain-free, the over-sensitive or prominent pain pathways may quiet down. It takes time, but eventually these novel ways of using the nervous system can become more of a habit, and there is evidence that with practice and experience, the structure of the nervous system can change.

So here is a new message: The nervous system can change, and this beautiful capability can help us heal.

Powerfully Psychosomatic

As part of her TED talk, Tessa Rankin MD tells this story:
Mr. Wright, who was suffering from late-stage cancer, asked for a specific drug to cure his tumors, and when he used it, he got better. Later, he read that the drug was not effective, and his tumors returned. When the doctor realized what happened, he injected Mr. Wright with saline and told him that it was a better concentrate of the drug. Lo and behold, Mr. Wright was cured again. But later, when he read that the drug was absolutely ineffective, he died.

This case depicts the placebo effect- a phenomenon where people can get better without the intervention or procedure. And it also demonstrates the nocebo effect- where a person thinks something bad is going to happen and it does.

Dr. Rankin states that the placebo effect is direct evidence of the body’s innate self-repair mechanisms, and the power of the mind/body connection. It is estimated that when fake drugs or treatments are given for a study, 18-80% of the time they yield measurable results in the body. The Institute of Noetic Sciences has a database of approximately 3500 cases studies where there was healing in seemingly incurable instances.

Before I worked through my pelvic pain, when an illness was labeled psychosomatic, I thought the condition was just caused by a person’s mind and therefore it was suspect and not really valid. But then I directly experienced how the connection between my body/mind/spirit contributed to my illness, and also helped me to reverse it. The more I appreciated the power of this connection between my mind and body, the more I could use it to help me heal.