Can You Think Pain Away? Some Experts Say Yes.

First published on my iVillage Health Beat blog.

The Mind-Body Connection

My husband comes from a long line of herniated disks. Two of them are painfully present in his own spine, and several others have shown up in the spines of his father and brothers. Breaking free from genetic inevitability, my husband is the only family member to refuse spinal surgery – so far. He prefers a sometimes stubborn approach which involves living with what he feels is an acceptable level of constant pain, spending liberally on osteopathic and athletic therapy, pursuing high-level athletic goals which force him to stay fit, and swallowing a very large daily dose of denial along with his ibuprofen. While the rest of his afflicted family members submitted to the knife by the time they hit 30, my husband has reached his mid-40’s and still refuses it. But this week he’s bad.  This week, as a result of his latest sports championship, he is now struggling to walk, bend down, and even turn his head. Coincidentally, this week I am also attending the annual meeting of the Society of Behavioral Medicine. As a medical journalist, I track the trends, interview the experts, and write about the latest new in most fields of medicine. As I absorb what’s new at this meeting I keep thinking of my husband, who is a perfect example of the interaction of behavior with health – the cornerstone of behavioral medicine. Refusing a recommended surgery because it did too little to help his family members, his attitude is to live life to its fullest until the herniated discs force him to slow down. As it turns out, this is actually a recommended therapy in behavioral medicine. Indeed, the treatment of illness and relief of symptoms should not be simply a matter of finding and eliminating the cause, Fred Friedberg told me today. As a clinical psychologist, associate professor at Stony Brook University School of Medicine, and a specialist in treating medically unexplained illnesses, Dr. Friedberg knows a lot about healing patients without knowing the cause of their pain. In his latest book he explains how he helps patients with chronic fatigue syndrome  and fybromyalgia  relax, reduce the stress in their life, and accept their limitations. Despite no medical explanation for their illnesses, and no cure, he can promote healing attitudes which bring them relief. And, being himself a chronic fatigue syndrome patient, he presumably knows what he’s talking about. Dr. Friedberg agrees that whether there is a medical explanation for pain or not, the mind/body connection is an important one for relieving symptoms and improving a person’s quality of life. As for my husband, there may be some faulty connections in his spinal cord, but so far he’s managed to keep going with his home-made version of behavior therapy. –KJ


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