Neck Pain for 20 Years…Gone.

I watched a video the other day (second video as you scroll down the page) about a woman with neck pain when turning her head for the last 20 years. The pain didn’t happen every time she turned her head–just often.

The therapist helping her was, I think, a psychologist. He explained that because the pain didn’t happen every time she turned her head that nothing structural (broken bones, herniated discs, etc) was the problem. Instead, he explained, her brain was mis-categorizing the pain as something bad as opposed to something that just normally happens when you turn your head.

He asked her to continue turning her head and every time she felt that pain, tell herself that it wasn’t necessarily something bad that was happening, but instead something normal. After a minute or two of this, she expressed that her neck pain was gone and became upset briefly, as if something was released.

What’s going on here? How can her neck feel better with this simple exercise?

In my humble opinion, there are three issues that push us past our critical threshold of pain: emotional/psychological/spiritual issues, mechanical issues, and dietary/ingestion issues. The more you’re challenged in these three pillars of function, the more likely you will be to have chronic pain. Many people, of course, can just have mechanical problems at the core of their problems. We see these all the time at our clinic. They get better with targeted diagnosis and treatment to fix their issues. No big deal.

Other people have anxiety, depression, trauma or other issues working in the background while also having mechanical issues. Now we’re introducing the emotional/psychological/spiritual issues component of pain. These people tend to hold tension in their bodies as a result and injuries are a bit more stubborn to solve (I explain how I think this happens in my back pain book). When working with these patients, I try not to shy away from talking with them about the connections between emotional/psychological/spiritual issues and how that is manifested in their body.¬†Most patients are very open to discussing these issues with me as they relate to their pain. By discussing this in a trusted environment and paying attention to them, we begin to release the tension these issues generate in our bodies. I work with these concepts fairly regularly with people with chronic pain.

My area of least knowledge is dietary/ingestion issues (this includes allergies or other types of immune reactions as well). I’m not a dietician and, while that information is very valuable, discussing dietary issues makes my eyes glaze over. It’s just too complicated–too many permutations. The extent of my recommendations if I suspect something along these lines is to see a dietician or allergist and experiment with eliminating gluten from their diet to see if this is creating some sort of inflammation and pain–often it is.

Okay, with that out of the way, how did the woman above eliminate her neck pain by just talking about it? Well, for starters, if you have pain and then decide to redefine it as not pain, then by definition you have no pain. But that’s just wordplay. I think this goes deeper than that because she really seems to feel better. On that note, I think the psychologist has a point that our brain may tend to exaggerate or catastrophize (is that a word?) a problem. Re-defining that problem as one that may not be so big, can be a good way of getting yourself to relax about it. Relaxation means less tension.

Secondly, based on her emotional reaction, she has at least some component of the emotional/psychological/spiritual axis as part of her problem. This is evident by her tears and sense of releasing something as a result of the process.

But the question remains then, is this purely a psychological issue she just created in her mind 20 years ago and never let go? Based on what we see in the clinic, I believe she must have at least some mechanical component to her persistent pain. This is likely why it began. Over time she may have developed an emotional component to the pain as well. After all, it’s frustrating to have chronic pain. It tends to make people feel broken and/or fragile in some way. The pain is a constant reminder of these feelings reinforcing them.

She may continue to feel the pain or discomfort when turning her head but now that she’s re-defined it as something that’s not bad, she may learn to ignore it completely and therefore be painfree. In my experience, pain is an indicator that something is wrong and you must figure it out. Ignoring it won’t make the resulting stress to the tissues any less.

Just because you haven’t found the solution to your pain, doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Most people with chronic pain we see at our clinic, simply haven’t had the right information yet. Once they do, and act on it, pain melts away.

I’m impressed with this demonstration and happy for the woman and others who are helped with these techniques. However I’m reluctant to believe that this will solve all or most chronic pain. I’m a physical therapist and that’s my bias though.

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