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Overcoming Back Pain
by Gary F. Zeolla
Note: This article is condensed from the much more detailed booklet Overcoming Back Pain.
In college I was on the Penn State Powerlifting Team. I won two state titles, one national title, and broke several collegiate records. My best lifts in the 123 pound weight class were: squat: 425 pounds; bench press: 240 pounds; deadlift: 435 pounds.
However, in November of 1982, during my senior year, while warming up for a squat workout, I felt a jabbing pain in my lower back. Since I was just warming up I couldn't see how I could have hurt myself. But from then on I was unable to do much of anything at the gym. During the rest of my senior year, every time I tried to lift a weight of any significance, the jabbing back pains would come back.
Over the next several years the pain worsened to the point where I was unable to lift anything over 20 pounds. I also had to avoid any strenuous activity, especially anything that would require "twisting" in one direction or another. The only thing I did to stay in shape during this time was casual walking. The fear of pain kept me from engaging in anything more strenuous.
Crippling Back Pain
I maintained this fearful lifestyle for the next nine years. As long as I was very careful I was able to at least function normally. But then on June 4, 1994 I lifted a heavy object. Immediately, I knew something was terribly wrong. The pain gradually worsened over the next few weeks until it became unbearable, so I went to the emergency room.
The ER doctor took X-rays and gave me some pain pills. He told me to go home, lie down in bed, and move as little as possible for the next two weeks. I can remember clearly the doctor saying, “I can’t emphasize this enough. Rest, Rest, Rest!”
Now I was really frightened. With such a prescription, I thought my back must be in terrible shape. So much as moving could cause damage. So not wanting to hurt myself any further, I followed the doctor's advice. But over the next two weeks, my back did not improve. As long as I lay in bed I was okay, but as soon as I got up, the pain would come back. So what this did was to engrain it in my mind that the only way I could relieve the pain was by lying down.
After the two weeks, I could barely get around. I could be "up" (sit, stand, walk) for only a few minutes before I had to lie down again due to developing pain. At this point, my doctor sent me to physical therapy. At therapy, they had me do stretching and strengthening exercises.
Over the next several weeks I did improve somewhat, but not much. I was now able be up for all of 30-60 minutes before I had to lie down. Needless to say, this pattern left me with no life to speak of. In addition, I would now experience pain if I lifted anything over two pounds. Yes, you read that correctly: two pounds. Here I was a former National Collegiate Powerlifting Champion, and now I couldn't even lift a half-gallon of milk!
Traditional and Alternative Treatments
Over the next few years I made the round of traditional doctors. An MRI showed I had a compressed lower spine and a “bulge” on one of my disks. So I went to see a couple of surgeons, but both said surgery would not help. Then I tried spinal taps, traction, and a TENS device. But none of these provided any relief. So I took lots of acetaminophen to deal with the pain.
Next I began to investigate alternative treatments. I tried chiropractic, acupuncture, massage, and trigger point therapy treatments. The only one of these that helped at all was the trigger point therapy, but it didn’t help that much. So with traditional and alternative treatments providing little relief, I began to see what I could do on my own.
Throughout this time I had continued to do stretching and strengthening exercises and kept walking as best as I could. And this exercise did seem to help some. So I decided to get serious about exercise. I began doing strength training at a gym, and I gradually increased the distance and speed I was walking. I even started bicycling and swimming for the first time in years. I also really started to watch my diet.
I tried various supplements like MSM, SAMe, glucosamine, and various vitamins and minerals. The only thing that seemed to help at all were calcium/ magnesium capsules. I also tried various creams, ointments, and sprays, but with no lasting effect. But one thing that did seem to help was lying on an ice pack. And somewhat contradictory, heat would also help, especially wet heat. Engaging in relaxation techniques like mediation and prayer also seemed to help some. After a few months of trying these different treatments on my own, I was doing a little better, but still not much better.
Putting the above together, the only treatments that seemed to provide any relief were: physical therapy and exercise, trigger point therapy, diet, calcium/ magnesium capsules, ice, heat, and relaxation techniques. But it made me wonder what the connection was between these seemingly diverse treatments.
The Mind-Body Connection
In March of 2000, I read Dr. John Sarno’s book Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection. Dr. Sarno's theory is that the vast majority of cases of back pain are caused by extreme emotions, especially suppressed anger. Physical findings like herniated, bulging, and compressed disks are meaningless. Such supposed abnormalities are simply the normal result of aging as many people without back pain have them.
Sarno’s idea is that suppressed anger or other strong feelings cause the muscles in the back to become perpetually tense or tight. And this tightness reduces blood flow and thus oxygen to the muscles. It is this reduced flow of blood and oxygen that causes the pain. The mind causes the pain to distract the person from noticing and thus having to deal with the suppressed anger.
To be clear, Sarno is NOT saying that the pain is "All in your head." There is very real pain caused by a real physical manifestation, the tense muscles, which Sarno calls Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS). The mind comes in as the cause of the tight muscles.
Now this idea tied together all of the diverse treatments that I had found helped somewhat. Each of these treatments, in one way or another, either increases blood flow directly or relaxes the muscles, which in turn increases the blood flow.
Another thing that Sarno dwells on is the cycle of pain and ever increasing restrictions that one gets into with chronic pain, and how the mind can convince a person that they need to do a certain activity or avoid another to stay out of pain. My perceived need to lie down every 30-60 minutes and fear of lifting anything over two pounds were perfect examples of this phenomena.
Sarno seemed to be describing my situation perfectly, so I began to follow Sarno’s suggestion as outlined in his book. First I began using Sarno's mind techniques. These entail talking to your brain. Now this does sound silly, but it works. What I would do is repeatedly tell my mind, "There is nothing wrong with my back." Or if I would experience pain I would simply tell my brain to "Get lost!"
If I did get angry about something and start to feel pain, I would tell my brain, “Yes I’m angry, but that’s no reason to cause me pain.” The idea is to recondition your mind so it no longer uses pain as a distraction from anger.
Next I had to deal with the anger. What Sarno recommends and what I did was to start writing down a list of everything I could possibly be angry about, upset, stressed out, or have any other strong negative feelings about. I went all the way back to college when I first experienced pain. I ended up with a very long list, and I kept adding to it over time as I kept remembering more things. I would read and pray over the list daily, asking God to forgive me for harboring anger over people I should have long since forgiven or over events that were out of my control.
Then I started to deal directly with the problems the pain had been causing me. Sarno recommends going about things gradually as it takes time to recondition the mind. So that's what I did. I gradually started staying “up” for longer periods every day until I was able to stay up the entire day without pain. Then I gradually began lifting more and more first at home and then at the gym. And I began engaging in activities that required twisting quickly.
Over a period of about two months I overcame my fears of being up, lifting, and twisting. Now, a year later, back pain is no longer a problem in my life. I am even up to deadlifting over 200 pounds at the gym. That's a far cry from what I could do in college, but not bad for someone who couldn't lift more than two pounds a year ago. So Sarno’s theories on the mind-body connection proved to be an answer to prayer for me.
The above article was written in June of 2001. It is now March, 2007, and I wanted to bring this story up to date.
I mention near the end of the booklet that I had started using free weights for the first time since my college powerlifting days. By the winter of 2002-2003, I began handling some pretty decent weights. So much so that I started thinking about competing again. To date, I have competed in seven contests. I now hold a total of 27 powerlifting records and have been the #1 or #2 ranked master powerlifter in the USA in my weight class for each of the last three years. So after taking a 21-year break from powerlifting, I am once again competing with a high degree of success.
My best lifts from these contests are as follows:
I have never experienced any back pain while competing at these contests. So after six years of not being able to lift more than two pounds without experiencing pain, I am now once again squatting and deadlifting over 400 pounds!
Moreover, most of these contests required a three to four hour drive from my home near Pittsburgh, PA to get to the contest site. And I experienced no pain whatsoever while sitting for that time period. In fact, I now sit for hours on end with no back pain whatsoever.
So seven years after I overcame my back pain, I am living my life back pain free. And I would say that my story should prove beyond any doubt that Sarno’s methods in dealing with back pain work. After what I had been through, it really is nothing short of miraculous that not only am I able to live my life back pain free, but that I am able to powerlift at a high competitive level again.
I will close this story by saying I thank the LORD for my recovery. And I hope and pray that my story will be an encouragement to the reader.
Books on Back Pain
Healing Back Pain was only one of three books by Sarno that I read. I also read a book by Fred Amir that was based on Sarno's book. Below are all four of these books. They can be purchased from Amazon.
Amir, Fred. Rapid Recovery from Back and Neck Pain
. Santa Clara, CA: Health Advisory Group, 1999.
Sarno, John. Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection.
Mind Over Back Pain . New York: Berkley Books, 1982.
The Mindbody Prescription: Healing the Body, Healing the Pain . New York: Warner Books, 1998.
A much more detailed version of the above article
is available in my booklet Overcoming Back Pain.
Disclaimer: The material presented in this article is intended for educational purposes only. The author is not offering medical or legal advice. Accuracy of information is attempted but not guaranteed. Before undertaking any diet, exercise, or back pain recovery program, one should consult your doctor. The author is in no way responsible or liable for any bodily harm, physical, mental, or emotional, that results from following any of the advice in this article.
Overcoming Back Pain Copyright © 2001, 2007 by Gary F. Zeolla.
The above article was posted on this Web site June 13, 2001.
The update was added March 6, 2007.
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