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Emotions and Fibromyalgia

by Gary F. Zeolla
(a.k.a. Reepicheep)

The following message was posted in the "" Newsgroup.

I approach this subject with some hesitancy. I did a search in Google Groups for past posts in this group on this subject and many seem to get offended by this topic. The problem seems to be that when this subject is broached, some think that what is being said is “it’s all in your head” (IAIYH). That is not what my point will be, not even close. Also, some think that this approach is “too easy” or a “quick fix” suggestion. But it is far from that.

Also, I apologize up front for the length of this post. But knowing the controversial nature of this treatment protocol, I feel I need to explain things as thoroughly as I can.

And please no flames! If you are offended by this discussion, then please just ignore it. I don’t want to start a fight. I am just relating what has helped me. Apply it to yourself as you see fit.

Low Back Pain

With that said, I must first give some background for readers to understand where I am coming from. And to do so requires I go all the way back to when I was in college (I’m 40 now), to when I was powerlifting.

For those who don’t know, powerlifting is a competitive weightlifting sport that consists of three lifts: the squat, bench press, and deadlift. In college I used to be able to squat and deadlift over 400 pounds (at a bodyweight of 123 pounds). But due to low back pain I develop in November of 1982, I was forced to quit competing and eventually to stop lifting weights altogether. For a period of several years, I couldn’t lift more than about 20 pounds without being in pain.

Then in June of 1994, the pain worsened to the point where I could not lift more than two pounds without being in pain. I also would end up in great pain if I tried to be “up” (sitting, standing, walking) for more than 30-60 minutes. So I spent the bulk of my day lying down.

I lived this horrid existence for six years. During that time, I tried just about everything that traditional and alternative medicine had to offer for back pain. All of the treatments I tried were either completely worthless or only provided minor relief.

But then I came across something completely different: Dr. John Sarno and his theory on the role of the emotions in back pain. Basically, Sarno believes that strong suppressed emotions like anger are the cause of most cases of back pain. He calls his theory “Tension Myositis Syndrome” (TMS).

What Sarno’s theory states is that the suppressed anger or other strong feelings cause the muscles in the back to become perpetually tense or tight. And this tightness in the muscles in turn reduces blood flow and thus oxygen to the muscles. And it is this reduced flow of blood and oxygen that causes the pain. And in fact, Sarno cites studies that show there is a reduced amount of oxygen in the muscles that people have chronic pain in.

The reduced oxygen somehow directly causes pain in the tight muscles, although exactly why Sarno is not sure. Also the lack of blood flow allows waste products like lactic acid to build up in the muscles.

I want to emphasize that Sarno is not saying IAIYH. There is a very real pain being caused being by a very real physical process, the tight muscles. The emotions come in as being the cause for the muscles being tight. And despite the pain, the tight muscles are benign; they are not a signal that some kind of damage is occurring to the body.

Overcoming the Back Pain

At first this theory was hard for me to accept. I knew from experience that strong emotions like anger or stress could aggravate my back pain, but could such emotions really be the CAUSE of my back pain? The information in Sarno’s book and my own personal experience eventually convinced me that suppressed emotions were in fact the cause of my pain.

After I accepted the diagnosis, I then set out to gradually to overcome all of the fears about my pain that I had built up over the years. The first was to accept that there was nothing physical wrong with my back. And concurrent with this acceptance was to recognize that any pain I might experience was not a signal that damage was occurring in my back.

I also used the “mind techniques” that Sarno discusses in his book. These included first making a list of everything I could think of that was currently or in the past had made me angry, upset, feel guilty, or any other strong negative emotion. The idea is to “dreg” up any suppressed feelings. And this is not easy. In fact, Sarno tells the stories of some people who said they would rather have the pain than to have to deal with some long-suppressed emotions.

Another technique Sarno recommends and that I used was 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!" I also used visualization, which was recommended by Fred Amir in a book based on Sarno’s ideas.

Once I felt I had the pain under control using these methods, I then gradually began to stay “up” for longer periods of time. It took me one week to go from only being able to be up 30 minutes to staying up for the entire day! After six years of being crippled by back pain, this was a monumental day for me.

I then worked on the fear of lifting. I started with lifting bricks that were behind my home. When I got up to lifting five bricks I knew I was over my back problem! I then began doing deadlifts for the first time in years at the gym. I began with the lightest weight possible, 3 pound dumbbells. Over the period of the next year or so, I gradually worked up to deadlifting over 200 pounds. For my last workout before my FM symptoms became serious, I pulled 225 pounds for two sets of eight reps. Not bad for someone who couldn't lift more than two pounds a little over a year before. That was on July 12, 2001.

Fibromyalgia and TMS

Now how does all of this relate to fibromyalgia? In two of his books, Sarno specifically mentions fibromyalgia (FM). He states that FM is a severe form of TMS. And he’s not alone in this assessment. I did an Internet search on “TMS AND fibromyalgia” and came up with the Web sites of several doctors who specialize in treating back pain via Sarno’s TMS theories. But most of these sites also mention FM and state, “Fibromyalgia is TMS.” And some relate that they have successfully treatment FM sufferers.

I also came across a book that specifically applies Sarno’s theories to FM, Freedom from Fibromyalgia by Nancy Selfridge, MD and Franklynn Peterson. Selfridge and Franklynn go beyond Sarno’s treatment methods to outlining a specific “Five week program proven to conquer pain.”

This program includes some features of Sarno’s program, such as writing out what you are angry about and talking to your brain. But it also adds journaling, mediation, visualization, and recording your dreams. All of these are designed to aid FM sufferers to “dig” into themselves to find any and all anger that could be contributing to the pain.

From before I was diagnosed with FM, I was already thinking that the pain I was experiencing could be another manifestations of TMS. My fibro-pain began when I pulled a muscle on the left side of my upper back at the gym. This pain eventually wrapped around to the front-with the left, front, lowest rib being especially painful. This pain worsened two days after the above mentioned deadlift workout when I went for a bicycle ride. After that, the pain progressed to encompass my entire left side and then my entire torso.

I also developed what felt like pulled muscles in both legs and both arms. Whether these were actual injuries or “just” fibro-pain, I still cannot say. But whatever the case, it was at this point that I was diagnosed with FM. I should also mention, that I had been feeling increasing fatigued since I had the flu back in January.

It was when the pain wrapped around to my front that I began to think of TMS. Despite some rather imaginative explanations from several different doctors, it simply made no sense to me that a pulled muscle in my upper back could be affecting my front rib. And Sarno talks in his book about symptom relocation-the possibility that after one overcomes back pain that the pain could relocate somewhere else in the body. But I just wasn’t sure if this was the case or not. And then with the FM diagnosis, this left other uncertainties.

So I spent quit a bit of time researching FM to find out all I could about it. And there are some very real physical situations that can lead to the symptoms of FM. So I needed to be sure to rule these out. That was the point of my previous “Possible Contributing Factors” post.

After talking to both a naturopath and my primary care physician, both concurred that the only item on this list that applied to me were allergies. My PCP suggested drugs and shots. But I had already started NAET type of allergy treatments with the naturopath, as the congestion the allergies cause is a problem in itself. But given how busy the naturopath is, the treatments have been far between.

After several treatments I am noticing that my congestion is not as severe as before. It wasn’t until I was treated for all airborne allergies that are active at this time that I noticed a difference. However, that improvement could just be due to the change in seasons. I’m generally not congested most of the day, but I still often get congested after eating, despite avoiding all of the foods the naturopath says I am allergic to. So I’m not sure what to make of the treatments just yet. But I plan on continuing the treatments for a least a couple of more visits to see what happens. I’ll probably post more in this regard at a later time.

Otherwise, as I previously posted, I had been taking several supplements, so when I was diagnosed with FM I continued with them, while increasing the amounts somewhat, especially magnesium. But none of this seemed to help.

Applying TMS Techniques to FM

Since the supplements didn’t seem to be helping, and with other contributing factors being ruled out, I decided to focus on the TMS connection. I re-read the portions of Sarno’s books that specifically mention FM several times as it’s only a couple of pages in each. I then read through Selfridge and Peterson’s book twice.

I then proceeded to utilize the treatments they recommend, especially journaling. However, I have not been following their specific program in terms of how long each “session” of journaling should last and what to write about. I have simply been writing in the journal as I have had the time and writing in detail about anger producing events in my life, both current and in the past. I have also been using mediation and visualization, again as time permits and focusing on what seems to be most pertinent at the time.

It didn’t take me long to get the FM pain mostly under control, a matter of a few weeks. The pain that at one time covered my entire torso is now mostly gone and has been for a while. I only occasionally experience pain in my front rib. Selfridge and Peterson would probably call it my “fibro-spot.”

However, I keep feeling like I am experiencing pulled muscles at various places in my body. Some of these have occurred doing simple things like walking and most recently changing the blankets on my bed. And with these areas of pain it is hard for me to determine if this is “just” TMS pain or a real injury. Just to be sure I have been treating them as injuries. However, a most recent incident is convincing me that they are in fact a manifestation of TMS.

I was doing bench presses at the gym. I had a guy spot for me who I didn’t really know. When he handed the bar off to me, he handed it off “unbalanced”-too far to the left. I had to snap it back with my left arm. It scared me a bit, but I didn’t feel anything and completed the set and the rest of my workout. I didn’t notice anything until the next day. Then my entire shoulder was just not feeling right. Not a great pain, just uncomfortable. So I iced it, but then I started to re-read sections of Sarno’s books.

In them he specifically mentions that the pain might “move around” once you start treatment. And in fact, the night before my right, lowest rib was bothering me. But in the morning, the rib was fine, but now the shoulder was bothering me. Once I realized how silly this was, the uncomfortableness mostly went away. I even went to the gym and put in a deadlift workout without any problems.

I tell this story to indicate that sometimes all it takes is to realize and accept that the pain is emotionally produced for it to go away. But other times it requires more extensive treatment, such as Selfridge and Peterson outline in their book.

Other Possible Reasons for Improvement

Now I should mention that at one point I did start to take malic acid. But one thing that both Sarno and Selfridge and Peterson mention is to stop any physical treatments you are doing. Continuing them could prevent the mind techniques from working. It’s hard to convince your mind that the pain is psychologically produced when you are utilizing physical treatments. Also, if you do start to get relief, you won’t be able to be sure what it was that did so. I should caution that Selfridge and Peterson do warn that you should not stop any drugs immediately as some need to be tapered off of. You should also talk to the physician who prescribed them first.

As for supplements, they also recommend tapering off of them slowly, but only after you are comfortable with the TMS diagnosis and have some success with their treatment method. But since I had just started the malic acid, I stopped taking it. I also stopped taking most of my other supplements. The only exceptions were a somewhat high dose multiple vitamin/ mineral supplement and the magnesium. I figured the multi could have other benefits besides just dealing with FM symptoms. And the increased amounts of magnesium were proving to help control neurological “tics” that I get and mentioned about previously.

When I stopped most of my supplements, the pain did not and has not returned to any significant degree. Now it could be the magnesium or the allergy treatments that is responsible. However, as previously indicated, I was already taking magnesium before the FM diagnosis. I simply doubled the amount. And I don’t see how that could have made this much of a difference.

As for the allergy treatments, I had only had one or two treatments and had not noticed any difference in my nasal congestion when the pain was already under control.

I have also been carefully watching my diet. As I previously posted, I am currently following a near vegan diet, which my research showed me is the best kind of diet for FM. However, I was following such a diet long before I developed the symptoms of FM.

So I do believe it is the focus on emotions and TMS that is the main reason for the improvement of my pain symptoms. However, the fatigue is not responding so well. But Selfridge and Peterson state that the fatigue does take longer to overcome than the pain. So I am continuing to do the journaling and other mind techniques they recommend.

Lifting Weights Again

After the bike ride in July, I only lifted weights sporadically for the next month. Then when I was diagnosed with FM, I stopped lifting altogether. For the next month I simply did what I saw in this group and on various Web sites as generally recommended for FM: walking and stretching. But frankly I got bored with it, so I went back to lifting.

I started by borrowing my mom’s two and three pound dumbbells and began using them, along with three and five pound ankle weights I had from when I was rehabbing from knee surgery years ago. I used this low amount of weight and did a variety of exercises just to see if I could lift again. Initially I was very sore, but I kept going. After purchasing and using 5 pounds dumbbells for a short while, I started back at the gym.

When I did, I used the lightest weight possible for all lifts, such as deadlifting just the bar (45 pounds). I then gradually increased the weight each workout. For deadlifts, I eventually got back to deadlifting over 200 pounds-255 for 8 reps to be exact. And I had no pain afterwards and wasn’t as fatigued as I had been previously.

As compared to what I could do in college, that’s not much. But considering all I’ve been through, it was nothing short of miraculous. And since I’ve been doing so well lifting weights, I have been spending time in a couple of weightlifting related newsgroups, hence why I haven’t been in this group much lately.

So I was feeling like I am well on my way to recovery. Working on this message over the last few days probably also contributed to my breakthrough. Writing this helped me to convince myself that my FM symptoms really are TMS.

Tight/ Pulled Muscles and Knee Injury

However, as indicated, another problem I’ve been having is I am continually feeling like I am pulling muscles. Some of these are probably a manifestation of TMS, but not all. I've actually made some worse by ignoring them thinking they were "just" TMS pain. So my struggle now is trying o determine the difference between TMS pain and real muscle pull pain. As of this writing (11/26/01), by my best count, I have pulled at least 25 muscles in the past six months.

The worst of these muscle pulls is the right quad muscle I pulled on October 29 while squatting, and the groin muscle on the same leg a week later, which I pulled while stretching. These two injuries are so bad that almost a month later I am still unable to do even "free" squats. And since I use a wide stance on deadlifts, I can't do those as well. So with these injuries, I had no choice but to take some time off of lifting to give all these injuries a chance to heal.

I think the reason I keep pulling muscles is my muscles are very tight. The muscles in the back of my legs are so tight I can barely straighten my legs. It's worse in the mornings when I can barely walk. It takes me several hours before I am able to walk at all normally. I’ve been stretching regularly, but that’s not helping.

But I should mention that these tight muscles are not the same as the TMS induced tight muscles. In that case, I was still very flexible. The tightness mainly concerned the muscles tightening so as to reduce blood flow. But these tight muscles are leaving me very inflexible. And the same mind techniques I used on the back and fibro-pain isn't working with this problem. So I'm looking into other  possibilities.

Others in this newsgroup report having problems with tight and pulled muscles. So this new problem could be from the FM. But my doctor doesn't think there's a connection. And if not, he doesn't have a clue as to what is causing it let alone what to do for it.

One of the owners of the gym I work out at is a chiropractor, and he has an office in the gym. He also has a masseuse on staff. So I tried massage and trigger point therapy for these tight muscles. But that just seemed to make it worse. I'm also experimenting with some additional supplements, most notably colostrum.

But then in a minor accident on Thanksgiving (11/22/01) I injured my left knee. The X-rays were negative, but something is clearly wrong. After this newest injury, I suggested to my doctor I try going to physical therapy. At the very least, it might help with my knee injury. So my doctor gave me a prescription for PT.


The above was in October and November of 2001. After that time, my muscles progressively became stiffer to the point where I could barely walk. As a result, on December 12, 2001 I was diagnosed with Stiff Person Syndrome. In January of 2002 I began to have episodes where I was completely paralyzed. But these episodes were rather instructive. They always occurred when I was exposed to something I was allergic to.

To back up some, I have had allergies most of my life, but starting in the summer of 2000 they began to worsen considerably. Eventually it got to the point where I seemed to be reacting to just about everything, both foods and in the environment. And it was while my allergies were worsening that I developed the symptoms of first fibromyalgia and then stiff person syndrome. So these factors lead to the conclusion that allergies were contributing to both sets of symptoms.

So I began undergoing *NAET treatments. This is an alternative form of allergy treatment. And these treatments worked very well for all of my food allergies. Foods that would previously cause me problems if I just smelled them I can now eat without any problems. However, environmental items have not been as quick to respond. But still, as my allergies have improved so has my stiffness and other symptoms.

Another factor that was contributing to my symptoms was heavy metals and chemical toxicities. So I underwent various "detox" procedures to clear these out of my system.

I've had quite a few flare-ups of my symptoms along the way, but there is no doubt that I am doing much better now (in the middle of September, 2002), then I was at the beginning of the year. In fact, I am now back to lifting weights again. And I am hoping and praying that my progress continues.


The same mind techniques that enabled me to overcome my back pain enabled me to overcome the generalized fibro-pain I was having. But such techniques didn't work so well on the fatigue and my problem with tight and repeated pulled muscles. The reason for this is that allergies and toxicities were the cause of these problems.

So it would appear that emotional factors, allergies, and toxicities are the root causes of most of my health problems, both now and probably for quite some time. Since I am now aware of the emotional factors, I continue to use mind-body techniques as needed. And NAET has proven very worthwhile in addressing the allergy component. And I have taken steps to be sure toxins do not build up in my system again, such as drinking only distilled water and eating organic produce.

Now I am not saying that emotions, allergies, and toxicities are the root causes of everyone's fibromyalgia, but they are factors to consider. But the important point for the reader is to find the root cause of your symptoms. That was the point of my previous post on Possible Contributing Factors to Fibromyalgia. And interesting, I did list allergies, heavy metals toxicities, and emotional factors on this list. It just took a while to determine that these three components were the main factors in my symptoms.

For More Information

If the reader would like to pursue this subject of emotional factors contributing to health problems, I would suggest attaining the above mentioned book by Selfridge and Peterson, Freedom from Fibromyalgia. For background I would suggest Sarno’s books Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection and The Mindbody Prescription: Healing the Body, Healing the Pain, along with Fred Amir’s book Rapid Recovery from Back and Neck Pain.

In addition, what I gave above was a very abbreviated version of my back pain story. If anyone is interested, I relate my experience in detail in an eBook available on my Web site at Overcoming Back Pain.

For details on NAET treatments, see the articles listed at NAET Allergy Treatments and Applied Kinesiology. And see my multi-part Stiff Person Syndrome article for a detailed discussion of my experience with NAET.

And finally, if the reader missed any of the posts I refer to above and would like to see them, they are all now posted on my site at Fibromyalgia.

><> Reepicheep <><

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 treatment 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.

Emotions and Fibromyalgia. Copyright 2001, 2002 by Gary F. Zeolla.

The above Newsgroup Post was posted on this Web site October 27, 2001
and last updated September 16, 2002.

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