So often, pain plagues us for years, rearing its ugly head at the most inopportune times, like right before a sporting event, while we're on vacation, or when the weather finally turns to sun and it's time to get outside and play. Even worse, it can be a persistent thorn in your side for years; you might find that you wake each morning covered in aches, stiff, and unwilling to move.
Those who suffer with chronic or acute pain don't do so willingly. In fact, according to the American Chiropractic Association, Americans spend at least $50 billion each year on back pain, and experts estimate that as much as 80% of the population will experience back pain at some point in their lives.
Most doctors, if they are unable to find a direct medical cause of the pain such as a herniated disk or spinal stenosis, chalk pain up to “just a part of getting older,” leaving patients with little hope of long term healing. The truth is that aging does not have to be accompanied by the myriad aches and pains our Western civilization has come to expect.
In his lecture series, The New Physics of Healing, Deepak Chopra refers to studies done on indigenous tribes where the perception of a person as he or she ages actually increases in value. So, for example, a 30 year-old is much more highly regarded in athletic ability and mental wit than a 20 year-old, and so on and so forth. In this culture, the population did not decline as they aged, but actually improved in cardiovascular health and athletic ability (as measured by their ability to run long distances – their main form of delivering messages between tribes). Similar studies also invalidate the notion that aging necessitates physical and mental decline.
So, if pain isn't a necessary part of aging, why are so many people plagued by chronic discomfort? Following are three of the seven reasons I see clients get stuck running in circles, unable to achieve the results they're dreaming of.
Mistake #1: Continuing to do what doesn't work
It's common for someone to try a healing modality because a friend or family member had success with that path. Usually, clients will go to the same therapist that treated the referrer. This is generally a good strategy, but if you're not getting the results you want, don't keep flogging a dead horse. It may be that the therapist isn't a good match for you or that you need someone with slightly different skills. Your body may respond better to a different modality. Don't be afraid to end treatment if it's not getting you to where you need to be.
Mistake #2: Assuming there is only one solution
In contrast, some people bounce from practitioner to practitioner, seeking the “miracle cure” that will banish their pain. They try one session of massage, two with an acupuncturist, and then hit up a Rolfer for three sessions, never sticking with anything long enough to evaluate whether or not they're getting results.
When you set out to heal your body, you have to understand that there is no magic bullet. Accepting that fact will allow you to be proactive and engaged in your healing process. Ask lots of questions and educate yourself about the different therapies. If you're getting results, however small the measure, keep working with the therapist or modality that is moving you forward. Slowly add additional modalities, one at a time, until you find two or three that have a symbiotic relationship for your body. And, most importantly, keep an open mind. Assuming that you know it all, have tried everything, and that you know what does or doesn't work will tend to keep you stuck in a rut. You never know what new tidbit of knowledge will be the secret key to unlocking your vitality.
Mistake #3: Not working with the right mentors
Commonly, clients show up asking to be “fixed.” They say, “I just want you to fix me so I can get back to my old life.” I hate to break it to you, but a) you can't time travel backwards – the body you have now is the body you have to work with from this point forward, and b) no one can “fix” you; it's an inside job.
Healing pain runs deeper than just “fixing” a sore spot on your body. Pain is intricately linked with our mental and emotional states as well as our physical well being. At the very least, if you are stepping out on your healing journey, it's essential to have the support of a body mentor, spiritual mentor, and counselor or therapist. You may find that you have several in one category, such as an acupuncturist and structural integrator for your body, or one individual may be ideal. Dealing with all aspects of pain will help you to change the patterns that got you into your current state, developing healthier habits that will support whole body wellness.
Mistake #4: Treating only the symptoms
This could be the most common stumbling block that I see my clients facing. Western medicine, in its endeavor to divide and categorize the body, has given us the false notion that we are some sort of soft machine, a marvel of engineering with interchangeable parts, where organs and tissues can be extracted and replaced with no effect whatsoever on the organism as a whole.
Please don't get me wrong; western medicine has produced marvels in healing and definitely has its place in the world. Believe me, if I am in a serious car accident and need to be taken to the ER, I want the best MD in the world there to sew me back up!
But, when it comes to back pain, the tendency to want to pinpoint one tiny fulcrum of pain tends to leave the patient struggling and without solution. Here's why: Your body is intricately linked together; each tiny, microscopic cell is connected to the one next to it, and the one next to that, and so on. Every joint in your body affects the functioning of the joints that immediately surround it. If you injure a joint, there is a ripple effect through the body, much like the rings in a pond when you toss in a stone. It is impossible to focus solely on a knee, a hip, or a facet joint of the spine without also looking at the joints above and below it.
Most treatments only focus on the condition or diagnosis, i.e. sciatica, herniated disc, etc. In reality, your body underwent many stages of misalignment before developing severe conditions and debilitating pain, all starting with an imbalanced physical structure. Treating only the condition equates to treating only the result of the imbalance instead of going directly to the root cause of the pain. And, if there is no medical condition, doctors will often tell you that the pain and discomfort you are experiencing is “just part of getting older.” In fact, it's usually indicative of an underlying imbalance that will worsen if you don't intercept it.
I highly recommend working with therapists who take a whole body balance approach to healing pain, such as a structural integrator. Your results will be deeper and tend to last much longer than treatment that only focuses on the symptom.
Mistake #5: Not dealing with pain the first time
We're all busy, and no one wants to put a halt to their life just because of a little back stiffness, right? Even worse, we don't want to sound “whiny” or get labeled as a hypochondriac. So, it's no surprise that most people don't treat back pain the first time it happens.
Barring any major bodily injury such as a bad fall from a horse or a horrendous car accident, back pain doesn't come on suddenly or overnight. It's a progression, a slow deterioration perpetuated by daily habits. If you are experiencing even mild discomfort in your back, neck, and shoulders, it's a sign that all is not well and if you don't get treatment immediately, you're setting yourself up for a much more difficult healing task down the road.
This is exceptionally challenging for athletes to come to grips with as excelling in sports necessitates a tough mentality. If you quit at the first sign of pain and discomfort, it's unlikely that you'll make it very far as an athlete; therefore, I recommend that athletes find a solid core of body care professionals, set up a scheduled treatment program, and stick to it (no canceling appointments just because you feel healthy and well this week)! This will help to catch any minor imbalances in their early stages, reducing the risk of greater injury and pain later on.
Mistake #6: Not understanding that healing back pain is a process
In a world of quick fixes and magic cures, we all want to take the fastest road to health that we can. But, like losing weight, healing pain is a process and can take some time. The only way to get from A to B is to put one foot in front of the other, keep walking, and don't let minor setbacks discourage you. Healing your body is a journey of self discovery, and it can be uncomfortable to say the least. It forces you to take a look at your life, at the areas that are serving you and those which are not. Just like losing weight means letting go of habits that are destroying your health, facing your back pain head on will mean that you must change the way you are living to some degree.
Pain is almost always correlated to an emotional state. There is absolutely a connection between stress and pain, in part because stress causes the body to emit certain neurochemicals that create inflammation and tension, and also because stress causes us to focus less on taking care of our well being (the economic downfall of 2008 saw increased work hours and a corresponding spike in computer related shoulder pain). Dealing with stress goes much deeper than swallowing a pill; it requires us to allocate time for self care and to incorporate practices that support a calm, relaxed state of being, like meditation, qi gong, tai chi, and yoga. All of these take time to have an effect on your body and life. Choosing a program of bodywork, exercise, and stress management and sticking with it is crucial to long term success in healing your pain.
Mistake #7: Not taking action
Making this mistake will most certainly keep you trapped and in pain for years to come. No one can take action on your behalf – no one! If you want to heal your body, you must become an active participant in your healing process, and that means making appointments with experienced bodyworkers, incorporating daily activity into your life, being proactive about stress management, and educating yourself about every single aspect of healing from pain.
Although it's easier to sit on the couch and wonder why this happened to you, or even to just push through the pain, continuing to do all the same sports and other activities (weekend warriors, I'm looking at you on this one) until you just can't bear it any longer, refusing to actively seek relief or taking refuge in pain relieving drugs that mask symptoms is the same as choosing to shorten the number of years that you will be physically able to remain active. The choice is entirely yours.