Is Chronic Pain All in Your Brain?

Learned neural pathway causing chronic pain

What if your chronic pain is in your brain, rather than in your neck, back, pelvis, legs or arms?

In the 1980s I was one of the pioneering researchers in MRI of the shoulder, motivated in part by my own unexplained left shoulder pain that appeared mysteriously upon awakening one morning without an injury. One of the first MRI scans I did was of my own shoulder, but I couldn’t find any definite cause for the pain. However, convinced there was some mechanical problem that needed fixing, I talked one of my orthopedic colleagues into doing arthroscopic surgery.

All he found was rotator cuff tendonitis and bursitis which he treated with an acromioplasty and bursectomy. Much to my dismay, I was shocked to discover that my shoulder pain didn’t go away. I took strong NSAIDs and got such bad mouth ulcers that I couldn’t talk or eat for a week until I realized it was a side effect of the medications. My struggle with chronic pain went on for the next 15 years, never understanding that it was really about repressed anger. It eventually came out in passive-aggressive ways that led to the end of my first marriage.

By that time, I had trained in hypnosis and acupuncture and had more insight into my own mind-body issues. After some intense emotional processing my left shoulder pain finally went away, only to be followed a few years later by the development of a painful right frozen shoulder. Fortunately, I realized that it was related to political anger during the second term of the Bush administration and used Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) to release it in a few weeks rather than a few years. Many years later I am pain free and stronger than I have been since college, something I never believed was possible during the depths of my chronic pain experience.

Now if I ever get pain I start tapping right away and ask myself what I am angry about that is triggering my shoulder. I’ve turned my pain into an ally that keeps me on track emotionally, like a biofeedback tool without the technology. A computer metaphor can be useful in explaining how EFT works. Every trauma we have is like a malware program downloaded through our acupuncture meridians into a file in the limbic system of our brain. By running the program intentionally while tapping you can uninstall it as if you were hitting the delete key over and over to create emotional freedom.

The neurophysiological term for this process is memory reconsolidation where every memory is only as old as the last time you remembered it, and if you add in tapping which generates pleasant energetic sensations in the meridians the body creates a new positive association with the past event. Including hypnotic suggestions into the EFT protocol facilitates installation of an upgraded program that you actually do want to have running in your nervous system.

The benefits of EFT have been well documented scientifically during the past decade with an exponential increase in research to the point where there are now over 50 randomized controlled trials for a variety of conditions ranging from PTSD to food cravings to painful physical illnesses such as frozen shoulder. These studies have recently been highlighted in a documentary film on The Science of Tapping featuring interviews with a number of EFT researchers and clinicians.

Another related documentary film is All The Rage about the legendary career of Dr. John Sarno, the rehabilitation medicine professor from NYU who died just around the time the movie came out in 2017. His book on Healing Back Pain included dozens of anecdotal accounts of miraculous relief from pain through release of repressed emotions, but his work was criticized for lack of rigorous scientific validation. Fortunately, his proteges have finally succeeded in providing the evidence base that has been missing including a randomized controlled trial showing success with fibromyalgia, one of the most difficult pain conditions to treat.

I recently attended a workshop on Beyond Pain Management at the Art of Living Retreat Center (AOLRC) in Boone, NC, presented by mind-body internist Howard Schubiner, one of the researchers following in Dr. Sarno’s footsteps. He highlighted the evidence from the radiology literature that many abnormalities discovered on MRI scans of the neck, back, knee and shoulder can be found in totally asymptomatic volunteers as a manifestation of the normal aging process. This revelation creates cognitive dissonance in chronic pain patients who are attached to the idea that the scan findings are the cause of their pain.

In fact, there is a mounting body of research showing that over 90% of chronic pain is psychosomatic in origin which unfortunately carries the baggage of dismissive comments from clinicians that “it is all in your head.” Saying it is “all in your brain” is a much more acceptable and accurate description, as the pain is most likely due to a learned neural pathway caused by a persistent danger signal going off in the brain related to repressed trauma. The body substitutes physical pain for emotional pain it would rather not face creating what is now referred to as a psychophysiologic disorder.

This repression is reinforced by our multi-billion dollar pain management industry which offers expensive and invasive methods such as drugs, injections and surgery that may offer only temporary relief in suppressing the pain, sometimes no more effective than placebo. The good news is that there are now approaches such as EFT and Dr. Schubiner’s emotional awareness and expression therapy which can interrupt these neural pathways and heal the cycle of chronic pain, potentially alleviating the opioid crisis and rescuing the healthcare industry from economic collapse under the weight of overused diagnostic and therapeutic technology.

My favorite approach to reveal the repressed underlying emotions in combination with EFT is dreamwork, a time-honored way of guiding the healing process. My book Dreams that Can Save Your Life shows that valuable diagnostic and healing information can be obtained for free by keeping a dream diary. Inspired by Dr. Schubiner, I will be offering an AOLRC workshop From Pain to Personal Transformation: Heal Yourself with Tapping and Dreaming on 7/26–28/2019. Free 20 minute tapping and dream coaching consults are also available via Skype or phone through www.larryburk.com.