As a lifelong journal keeper, I've always scribbled down my thoughts to clear my head and to help express emotions I didn't know I had. But some types of writing can also treat physical ailments, including chronic back and neck pain, according to a new program at Northwestern Memorial Hospital's Center for Integrative Medicine and Wellness.
Evidence is building behind the theory that stress, tension and emotions can trigger very real physical pain, a condition known as Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS), or mind-body syndrome. Common symptoms include back pain, neck pain, gastrointestinal issues and migraine headaches, according to Northwestern's Dr. John Stracks, a mind-body specialist and one of a few dozen physicians in the country that treats the condition.
neck or shoulders) to your brain and diminishes the pain signals over time," Stracks said. "Writing to heal pain is aimed at cementing the understanding in your own brain that emotions and stress can cause physical symptoms."
At a recent workshop, I listened to more than a dozen people talk about how they used mind-body techniques to deal with pain. Anna Chapman's story was typically compelling. For a decade she'd suffered from a mysterious and debilitating pain that started in her jaw and spread to her head, neck and shoulders. Over time, the pain shot down her legs.
After visiting dozens of doctors and specialists, undergoing countless tests and exhausting her treatment options, Chicago's Chapman found Stracks' TMS healing program. After an initial evaluation, where Stracks ruled out physical medical issues, Chapman signed up for the four week course. There, she learned how to use writing and reading exercises to eliminate the pain.
One technique, for example, involved writing an unsent letter. Chapman learned to write until she felt an emotional reaction. "I'd be writing—and then crying—but I knew I'd feel better when I was done," she said.
According to Stracks, the physical pain serves as a distraction to underlying uncomfortable emotions. "Often, the pain is more desirable than the other things going on—anger, anxiety, fear or guilt," said Stracks, who trained with Dr. John Sarno, the physician who first conceptualized the TMS diagnosis.
"But when a patient recognizes that the symptoms are only a distraction, the symptoms then serve no purpose, and they go away," said Stracks.
TMS diagnosis and treatment has been slow to be accepted by physicians, but it's increasingly being used in other departments at Northwestern, ranging from gastronenterology to physical medicine and rehabilitation. Patients often don't respond to conventional back and neck pain treatments because stress and anxiety get in the way, Stracks said.
"It's growing in popularity because it's good medicine--it gets at the root cause of the problem rather than just treating the symptoms."
Stracks said the education and psychological treatment is effective in approximately 80 percent of patients that take the course. "If someone is experiencing lingering pain with no explanation or obvious injury, the cause may be emotional," he said.
Five tips on using writing to heal pain:
Rule out underlying physical disorders. Start by getting a medical evaluation from a practitioner who has been trained in mind-body medicine.
Read. Dr. John Sarno's bestselling book. "The Mindbody Prescription: Healing the Body, Healing the Body, Healing the Pain" is considered the bible for TMS sufferers. In addition, Dr. Howard Schubiner and Dr. David Clarke have all written "clear concise books" on the connection between the mind and the body, said Stracks. Joan Borysenko's Minding the Body, Mending the Mind, is one of my personal favorites.
Believe. If you doubt that your pain is a result of the mind-body connection, journaling is less likely to work, Stracks said.
List your stressors. Write down all the past and current stressors that may have contributed to the development of the physical pain.
Brainstorm. Each day, choose a different one of those stressors and write about it for 10 to 20 minutes. Do this for two to four weeks. "Include both your feelings about that stressor and what you have learned from writing about that stressor," Stracks said. If you get stuck, read patient success stories tmswiki.com.
Take Dr. Stracks' 4-week Mind-Body Pain class at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, 5:30-7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Nov. 2-23. For more information or to register, call 312-926-8400 or go to ww2.nmh.org/listing/detail/CIMW+Mind-Body+Pain+Group.
Jenniffer Weigel will return tomorrow.