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The secret life of pain

Reading time: 3 minutes

We all know what causes physical pain, don’t we? A part of your body gets crunched, cracked, stabbed, cut or burned, and you feel pain. Or, pain starts up when some body part gives way, like an overworked knee, or wears away, like cartilage, so that the parts no longer mesh together with ease.

In other words, pain is, essentially, some sort of mechanical issue, a faulty piece of equipment, caused by your body wearing out or getting broken. Or even, in the case of autoimmunity, that catch-all phrase medicine uses when it doesn’t really know the cause, when our body decides, for some unknown reason, to start breaking itself.

This month’s special issue on pain puts to bed those simplistic ideas.

As Cate Montana reports in our cover story (page 28), new evidence shows that many cases of back pain have nothing to do with wear and tear but are caused by infections: by bacteria – particularly the very species that causes simple common acne – as well as by fungi and other sorts of gut bugs. These bugs invade the tissues and begin causing all sorts of pain.

Besides back pain, bugs like these can also cause the most intractable cases of arthritis. When Sean Codling started suffering with ankylosing spondylitis in his 20s he was told that he would be in a wheelchair by 30 (page 66). Eventually, he discovered that bugs were the cause of his arthritic inflammation too.

Besides infections, other forms of pain are caused by simple stress. Drs David Wise and Rodney Anderson, who specialize in resolving pelvic pain, claim that it results from a mental/emotional cause: “The major contributing factor,” they write in an excerpt from their book A Headache in the Pelvis (page 56), “involves a chronically knotted up, contracted pelvis – typically a physical response to years of worry – that leads to tight, irritated pelvic floor tissue.”

Besides stress, this can be caused by some sort of emotional or mental trauma, or even by a series of stresses, causing the sufferer’s muscles to be permanently on-guard. Recently, a WDDTY staffer met someone at a pain clinic whose pelvic pain started the moment his girlfriend was diagnosed with cancer.

And we know there is something else going on here when we can think ourselves out of pain – or even, as recent evidence suggests, that pain can be lowered just from holding someone else’s hand.

A friend of mine used to suffer from back pain so severe that in her lowest moments, she even contemplated suicide. One day, her brother, a pain expert, told her that her pain was a mental feedback loop and she should try one simple trick. Every time she had pain, she should name it – ‘squeaky,’ ‘twitchy,’ whatever – and then forget about it and place her attention elsewhere.

She tried it for a few days – and never had a painful back again.

If bugs, stress or emotional grief are the cause of pain, the solution is very different from the mechanistically based treatments offered by modern medicine. It requires a good deal of detective work to find practitioners who understand these root causes and have developed reliable cures.

When Codling began doing his own reading and discovered that his situation might have something to do with allergies, he booked an appointment with the late WDDTY panelist, Dr John Mansfield, a pioneer in allergies and arthritis.

When allergies turned out not to be the whole story, Codling kept seeking, until he discovered the connection with infection.

In his case, the answer was simple – a change of diet – but the path to finding that solution required years of digging and searching, and never giving up.

And that’s the real crux of the issue. Since so little is really known about the source of much illness, and particularly pain, you need to take on board a certain attitude when you’ve got a condition like this: that you’re going to find a solution, no matter what it takes.

For that’s the worst part of pain, say Drs Wise and Anderson. It isn’t the pain itself. All of us can take all kinds of suffering – just consider women in childbirth. The problem begins when you get into the mindset that things will never get any better, that you are going to have to live with this pain forever.

If a doctor ever tells you that, run as fast as you can out the door and find another practitioner. In almost every instance, there’s a way to get better. That doctor just doesn’t know what it is, and you just haven’t found it yet.

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