“The Volcano God of Pain”

The Volcano God of Back Pain?

Jerry Groopman’s 19-year fight against back pain started with a running injury then moved on to a laminectomy and a disastrous spinal fusion before mercifully ending in an exam room at New England Baptist Hospital, where Larry Bird once received treatment for his aching back.

Dr. James Rainville examined Groopman, inspected his MRI and delivered an unsparing verdict that turned out to be an epiphany as well. 

“You are worshiping the volcano god of pain,” Rainville said. “The volcano god is your master.”

Groopman, a Harvard Medical School physician and oncologist who was no stranger to diagnoses, sensed danger. “He doesn’t understand my condition, the immutable scars from the surgery,” he thought. “He is dangerous, threatening to upset even the little equilibrium I’ve established over the years.”

Ignoring his patient’s distrust, Rainville handed Groopman the gift of hope that eventually healed him.

“…this god is never fully satisfied with any offering: It is appeased only for a short while. So the more you sacrifice, the more the god demands, until your life contracts, as it has, into a very, very narrow space. I believe you can be freed from your pain. I believe you can rebuild yourself and do much, much more.”

This exchange, recounted from Groopman’s The Anatomy of Hope: How People Prevail in the Face of Illness, led him to undergo intense physical therapy and exercise intended to “reeducate” his muscles to relinquish their memory of past pain. The treatment, designed to stretch ligaments and tendons contracted from lack of use, involved what Groopman described as “doing things that seemed designed to cause, not ease pain” including lifting crates full of lead bricks and rotating his torso while holding a heavy medicine ball.  

I suspect Groopman’s story is inspirational to readers on many levels, but reading it was vindicating to me, and may be to other long-time back pain sufferers as well. After all, if it took a Harvard Medical School doctor 20 years to find a way to fix his back, my long-time journey out of chronic pain and growing belief that the U.S. healthcare system is hurting back pain patients more than it’s helping is making more sense every day.

Echoing the philosophy of Dr. John Sarno, Rainville’s theory that protecting an “injury” causes more pain and debilitation is absolutely right on, in my experience – and it dovetails with a growing body of medical evidence lining up against prescribing bed rest for just about anything. 

Even more significant, at least to me, is the power of action inherent in these new diagnoses and treatments. I have always been more terrified that my back pain would prevent me from doing things I loved than I was of the pain itself.

Saying goodbye to the volcano god relieved me of that burden.



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