Chronic pain is a chronic problem. As a somatic (body-centred) practitioner, I know that there is no clear line between the body and the mind. A few months ago, I got the chance to talk with a healer who is using cutting-edge research to harness the physical/mental connection and help people regain full use of their bodies.
My friend, Dr. Emily Aronow is a physiotherapist who specializes in treating pain by re-shaping the nervous system.
Here are a few takeaways from our conversation:
Chronic Pain is Constructed by the Brain
Emily: Since the 1600s, we’ve been thinking that people had pain because of a tissue problem. So if you cut yourself, then a nerve would take pain from your finger and put it in your brain because your tissues were damaged. In the 1960s, the field of psychology contributed the concept that chronic pain may be coming from your beliefs and your emotions. Then in the 1990s, Louis Gifford, in the physical therapy world, started to put together some of the neuroscience and clinical observations and created the Mature Organism Model, which describes pain as a product of the environment, the brain, and the tissues. People have pain because the brain believes that something is dangerous and creates that sensation for you.
So pain doesn’t come out of your tissues, it comes out of your brain.
That is very important for people that have had pain for longer than three months, and especially for longer than a year: because at that point, the tissues have actually healed.
The Good News: Research Shows that Mindfulness Can Reduce Pain
Emily: Mindfulness is very protective for the nervous system.
Here’s a great technique that I recently heard on a TED talk by Phil Boissiere called the three-by-three technique: You just look at an object in your room and name it (for example, “chair”) and then take three breaths. Next, you look at another object, name it, and take three breaths. Finally you look at a third object, say the name and take three breaths. You are bringing yourself into the present moment and you are becoming aware of your environment with no stories or emotions attached.
A recent study showed that people who practice mindfulness produced less inflammation in their bodies when they were shown emotionally-triggering videos than people that didn’t have a mindfulness practice.
“Religious” Meditation is More Effective than Secular Meditation
Emily: Another recent study looked at people who meditated on a religious or spiritual theme (like repeating the phrase “God is good, God is love, God’s will is my protection…”) versus people that meditated on a secular theme (like, “I am healthy, I am well, my life is joyous…”).
The people that meditated on a religious theme had significantly better outcomes in terms of pain reduction, resilience and coping than the people that meditated on a secular theme. So, if you have a religious practice, lean into that with your meditation. That is what the research suggests.
Shabbat Can be a Pain-Relieving Retreat
Matthew: Do you have any personal stories that you could share with us about overcoming physical pain using mindfulness?
Emily: I have been studying this paradigm since about 2015. That’s when it first came to my attention. I’m a very healthy person and suddenly I developed this low back pain and I went through in my mind: Did I fall down? Did I lift something the wrong way? My first thoughts were, “What did I do?”
And then I happened to go to a meditation retreat that was put on by Sounds True. It had speakers, meditation and yoga. Just pulling up there and getting out of the car: no more back pain! I went through the whole weekend and it was great.
I came back home, I think we were hosting some out of town guests, and I didn’t know where everyone was going to stay. I was trying to manage everybody’s schedules and cook for them. It was really stressful and my back pain came back.
I think you can know something cognitively from your research and not really believe it until it happens to you. When that happened to me—the pain was there and then it was gone, and then it was back— it was all really brought home to me: the idea that our sensation of pain is created by our response to stress, fear and our environment is one hundred percent true.
Matthew: What it reminds me of also in the Jewish world is Shabbat. What kind of benefits could a weekly practice have? A practice of a “staycation,” if you will. A practice of just being with good friends, eating good food, turning your devices off so you don’t have to worry about the news and taking an attitude of, “it’s not about fixing the world right now, it’s about enjoying and celebrating all we have…” I wonder.
I have a desire for Jewish contemplative practices to be researched as rigorously as mindfulness has been.
Shabbat, which could be universalized so easily, is a prime subject because—when it is done with intention and preparation, “correctly” so to speak—it facilitates a sense of restfulness and refreshment. I would imagine it could have positive impacts on someone’s experience of pain.
Emily: Matthew, you just inspired me! I got goosebumps. I want to do that research. I love it. I’ve read several research papers on the role of spirituality and chronic pain, and they’ve all sort of amassed the religions together. They just ask people if they attend worship services once a month without going into it. I want to do the research that asks whether people that have chronic pain find that it goes away on Shabbat.
M: Amazing! Yeah, please do! Whenever it is out, we can have a follow-up conversation!
Dr. Emily Aronow is a physiotherapist who specializes in treating pain by re-shaping the nervous system. She advocates for wider use of current scientific research which strongly indicates that people get better when their physiotherapists address the client’s emotions, skills, and goals as well as their bodies. She’s the owner and PT at Colorado Nerve Care, a physio practice in Denver Colorado for people who have chronic or nerve pain and want an effective, prescription-free solution. Dr. Aronow is the only fellowship-trained pain science physiotherapist in Colorado. She is passionate about moving the industry of physiotherapy forward from a biomechanical model to a biopsychosocial model. Her patients often say that after years of medical appointments, she is the first person to hear their whole story and offer them a way to participate in their own recovery.
Learn more about her work at:
Colorado Nerve Care