It was 1990, less than three months from my graduation from Colorado College. One morning I woke up with tremendous sharp pain on the right side of my ass. I figured I was just out of shape, so I headed for the gym and played a couple hours of five-on-five basketball. But the next morning it was worse – I could barely get out of bed.
Within a couple of weeks I had my diagnosis, after seeing a neurologist in Denver and undergoing an MRI. Ruptured disk, level L5 S1. The doctor told me the nerve was impinging on my sciatic nerve, causing the pain. I had a laminectomy soon after and headed back to school to finish my degree. But my back didn’t get better – it got worse.
After a second surgery to remove scar tissue and countless hours of biking and walking and stretching, my back became manageable. But the die was cast – I had embarked upon a a constant struggle against chronic pain that would define my life for the next 20 years.
I had highs – climbing several 14,000-foot mountains and hundreds of miles of mountain biking. But I also had unbelievably awful lows that left me so sore I couldn’t work or really even leave my house.
I was constantly afraid that my back would fail me. I gave up tennis, basketball and skiing. I was terrified to lift anything heavier than groceries. I bought a fancy bed for my back, I called hotels before vacations to see if their mattresses were hard enough, slept on my side with a pillow between my legs and bought special insoles to correct my 1/2-inch leg length discrepancy.
I even moved differently – protecting my back from jarring when walking down stairs and sitting down gingerly for fear that I would aggravate my injury.
But what if my diagnosis was totally wrong? What if the pain in my back and legs was brought on by stress, negative emotions and by overly protecting my injury- not as a result of my ruptured disc?
That’s what John Sarno, author of Mind Over Back Pain and several other books about the mind-body connection would say. Reading his book last week was a breakthrough that’s had my back feeling better than it has in years. I know it sounds crazy, but again and again people have reported the same reaction – just reading the book cured their chronic pain – for good.
Envisioning my injury as a simple muscular issue instead of a serious, lifestyle-limiting structural problem has freed me from the bondage of 20 years of worst-case diagnoses. I’ve stopped babying my back, started sleeping without the pillow between my legs and generally just relaxed for what seems like the first time in decades.
It feels different walking, riding my bike and at the gym doing my core work. Suddenly, walking down stairs and sitting down in my chair at work is a whole new experience.
I’ve begun connecting my attacks of back pain over the years to emotional events in my life – the end of a really fun college experience; bad ends to relationships; a horrible boss and financial problems. And I’m beginning to acknowledge to myself that I worry too much about the insignificant things in life.
For the first time in years I’ve started thinking about playing tennis, jogging or skiing again (Sarno says getting participating in the activities you love is an important part of healing). Although I am at a point in my life where my back hasn’t really been bothering me much, just envisioning myself as a healthy person again instead of someone carrying a burden around has been liberating.
My wife would (will) caution me not to overreact. I’m pretty much famous for going off half-cocked when I get something in my head. But what if Sarno’s right?