The Role Emotions Play in Chronic Pain

“WHY do I hurt?”

I get asked this question a lot. And the answers often vary. Sure, we see structural dysfunctions that cause pain—an elevated left hip causing right ankle pain, for example—but what if we dig a little deeper? What if your pain is directly tied to an emotional trauma or stress?

I’ve seen it too many times. Let me tell you a story to help explain.

Judy (not her real name) came into one of our clinics with debilitating shoulder pain. The pain had reared its head several months ago, and she—along with all the experts she had seen—was stumped.

The shoulder capsule checked out fine. The rotator cuff wasn’t torn, there was no impingement in the joint, and for all intents and purposes, she had a “healthy” shoulder…except for the excruciating pain.

Now in her 60s, Judy had been a swimmer for 25 years and wondered if all that time in the pool had “finally taken its toll” on her shoulder joint.

I didn’t think it was swimming’s fault. She has been swimming with both shoulders for 25 years. Why would the pain just show up now, and only on one side? I set out to discover exactly why she hurt.

We sat in my office for about 30 minutes asking each other questions. She asked about The Egoscue Method and the role we would play in eliminating her pain. I asked about her condition and why she believed she hurt. The conversation turned to swimming, and that was when she blamed her favorite sport.

“But you’ve been swimming for 25 years. Why do you think the pain just started six months ago?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Judy said. “I guess I haven’t thought about it like that. I just know that it has been hurting since January, and I assumed it was due to too much time in the pool. But I’ve been able to swim pain-free for 25 years up until that point.”

“So, if it’s not swimming’s fault, why do you believe you hurt?” I asked.

“Well…I guess I’m not sure,” Judy said.

“What happened in January?” I asked in an attempt to get to the real reason she was hurting.

“My shoulder started hurting!” Judy said with frustration in her voice.

“No, Judy. What happened? What changed in January? Away from the pool. In life. In your social circles. What happened?” I asked.

And that’s when it hit her. Judy’s face dropped and turned a bit pale in color as if she had just seen a ghost. She explained to me that she had just been through a very complicated divorce. It was an emergency situation. She was literally married one day and divorced the next, and she had spent the last few months curled up on the couch in an attempt to cope with what was going on in her “new” life.

Bingo—that was the real reason. That’s why she hurt.

Judy was in an emotional tailspin (rightly so), and trying to make sense of it all was having a profound impact on her physically. Although it’s not my job to help Judy through the emotional side of things, it IS my job to help her discover the true cause of her pain.

If we hadn’t uncovered the emotional cause of the physical pain, there wouldn’t have been enough E-cises in the world to fully eliminate her shoulder pain. She would have gotten better, sure, but 100-percent pain free? I doubt it.

Don’t believe that the physical and emotional are connected? Think about the physical position your body takes when you’re sad and depressed. Have you ever seen someone sad and depressed walking with a perfectly upright posture? I didn’t think so!

We say it every day, but it bears repeating: The body is a unit. And I’m not simply referring to the muscles and bones. Everything is connected, and the sooner all the pieces of the puzzle are put together, the sooner you reach perfect health. You have to ensure that the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual sides of you are all working in sync. The better they are as a unit, the better you are as a unit!

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