Excavating a Diagnosis

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I'm the bass player on the left with the SWEET mullet

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?




2 responses to “Excavating a Diagnosis

  1. Sorry to hear that after all these years, you’re still haunted by this.

    I remember when I was in my late 20s and realized one day that not everyone hurts all the time from back problems, and not everyone throws up when they get headaches.

    I’ve cringed since I was a kid as other members of my family gave up their lives to let pain and ailments obsess them.

    I went the other direction and spent my whole life ignoring all of those problems and treating them like they’re nothing more than an annoying cut or sore.

    Most of the time it works. I, too, find that walking, pacing, biking and especially skiing are therapeutic for both problems. A good friend of mine who’s a physician believes it has to do with the endorphin release from physical exercise. I think it has a lot to do with being distracted by worrying about killing yourself when the going gets steep and deep. There’s nothing like a long, polished mogul field to make you forget about what’s ailing you.

    When all that fails, Spanish red wines, dark Indian chocolate and Mr. Bean movies are a good cure.

    • Dave, substitute the Spanish wine for Burgundy, a 2005 red vintage-of-the-century will do, and then switch mountain biking for the moguls, and I’m right there with you! Thanks for reading and for your insight. I believe stress lives in our bodies, particularly our backs and necks. Add in a heaping helping of the Medical Industrial Complex and you could spend your whole life locked inside your pain. Don’t feel bad for me, I’m learning every day how to better manage this issue – I refuse to let it own me.

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