My chronic pain made me suicidal. I had it for over four years.
The pain was in my left ischial tuberosity where the hamstring attaches to the pelvis, otherwise known as your ‘sit bone’. And it mostly only hurt when I sat.
Unfortunately, until you’re in pain every time you sit down, you don’t realize how much of your life revolves around sitting. Traveling became impossible because I couldn’t last in a car or airplane. Work was difficult. Eating out with friends had to go. Even just relaxing in front of the tv at night was an excruciating exercise.
If you want to learn about why my TMS started, you can read the full story here. In this article, I want to address the specifics of how I found my way out of the entrenched neural net that is TMS and thought my way out of chronic pain after it destroying my life for four years.
Here’s what it comes down to:
You have to convince yourself that the pain is all in your mind.
And you have to BELIEVE it.
This is a much harder task than you’d imagine. We as people, of course, believe that pain is an indicator that something is physically wrong. And it is most of the time! But sometimes, our brain gets ‘stuck’ on pain mode and it can’t find it’s way out. That’s how TMS crept up on me. Some hamstring tendonitis pain sensation decided to stick around long after the tendonitis itself had healed.
So how do you go about convincing yourself that your pain is in your head? For me there were two people that I had to convince: my logical brain, and my emotional brain. Both of them had very different journeys to accepting the TMS diagnosis.
Convincing the Logical Brain
Your logical brain is all about evidence and data. In order to convince it that there is nothing wrong with you, first you need to make sure you have extensive testing done by your doctors. I had MRIs, nerve conduction studies, experimental cortisone injections, physical therapy evaluations, and several doctor’s evaluations. Some of them led to diagnosis and treatments that didn’t work. After years of this, my doctors were out of ideas and were telling me that there was nothing structurally wrong with me that could be causing this pain.
After ruling out physical causes, my logical brain was convinced this was TMS by creating an Evidence Sheet. My evidence sheet was a long list of reasons that I was certain that my pain was TMS, and thus in my head. Here is what mine looked like:
- I have the exact personality type TMS patients have.
- I have a history of abuse in my childhood that predisposes myself to TMS.
- I have a long history of aches and pains around stressful periods of my life, particularly in my back and neck.
- No medical professional can find anything structurally wrong with me.
- Physical activity does not immediately worsen my pain.
- I pass every physical examination with flying colors.
- My pain completely resolves when I sleep and is gone in the mornings. Structural pain would not disappear overnight.
- The initial onset of my pain was during a stressful period in my life (infertility treatments) and got worse the deeper into treatment I got.
- I am able to change the quality and quantity of my pain in meditation sessions.
- Sometimes my pain jumps over to my right side or to slightly different areas in my butt.
- I have had a few hours, days and moments without pain.
- The pain has resolved completely in the past for months at a time before it came back with a stressful event.
- The pain is at its worst when I panic about it and obsess over it.
- Drinking large amounts of alcohol numbs the pain entirely. Alcohol is a CNS depressant which makes the brain stop feeling pain.
I reviewed this evidence sheet on a daily basis to remind my logical brain of why my pain was likely TMS.
Convincing the Emotional Brain
Like many TMS patients, I’m a hyper-logical person, and I’m not very in touch with my emotional brain. So getting in contact with my emotional brain to convince it was a much harder exercise.
Making it even more difficult to convince the emotional brain is the fact that the emotional brain under the influence of pain is driven by a single powerful force: fear.
My pain was terrifying. I was terrified that I would feel it forever. That I would lead a life essentially disabled, unable to see the people I loved or do the things I loved. I was terrified that in my 30s I’d be carrying around a donut pillow to sit on the rest of my life, or not be able to work anymore. I was scared it would get worse. I was scared I wouldn’t be able to survive it.
Convincing the emotional brain, for me, meant conquering that fear. How do you conquer a fear? It’s not like I could go bungee jumping or something to show I wasn’t afraid of this thing anymore.
The first step was to stop feeding the fear. I was doing a lot of things that gave power to my fear and to my pain. For example:
- I spent hours every day researching my pain and trying to figure out what it could be. I googled infinitely trying to find success stories or surgeries or doctors or treatments I hadn’t tried. Now to be fair, this googling led me to John Sarno and TMS, but once I knew logically it was TMS, I needed to stop researching my symptoms.
- I was limited my physical activity pretty significantly because of the fear that I would make my ‘injury’ worse. I started engaging in physical activity again, doing short walks and light exercise.
- I was using a number of ‘modifiers’. Modifiers are physical items that aid you in doing basic tasks. I had various pillows and lumbar rolls that I used in the car and on chairs. I had donut pillows of various densities and sizes that I sat on. I had a tennis ball I would place under my hamstring when I sat down which would take the pressure off my ischial tube. I stopped using all of these cold turkey, because using them reinforced the idea that I was ‘damaged’ in some way, when I was not.
- I had a routine of stretching, foam rolling, icing, heating pads and using stim to try to ease pain. I stopped doing all of these things.
Stopping all of these things was scary, and it didn’t make the pain go away immediately, but it didn’t make it worse either so I took that as a good sign.
Now that I wasn’t feeding the fear with reminders that I might be damaged, I also had to retrain my brain that the pain wasn’t something to worry about or be afraid of. And ultimately, that it wasn’t real. So I talked to it. A lot. Every time it was bugging me, I’d quickly say something like “Oh, that isn’t real, I don’t need to worry about it.” Or, “You’re not a real thing, go away!” Or, “I’m not hurt, that’s just my brain.”
After several weeks of this, I was noticing some reduction in my symptoms and an increase in my pain tolerance. I had pain-free days from time to time. It seemed I was on the right trajectory, but it kept coming back.
The Authority Figure
I had worked my way through Dr. Schecter’s TMS workbook and it was one of the things that helped initially convince me that I had TMS. But neither his workbook nor my personal interventions were sufficient to end my pain. So I decided to make an appointment with Dr. Schecter to see what he had to say about my case.
He was very thorough in my appointment. He examined all of my medical history, my history of abuse, my scans, my tests, asked tons of questions, and examined my area of pain extensively. He clearly went in with an open mind. But when it came to his diagnosis, he told me that I could be fairly certain that what I was experiencing was TMS. He thought that perhaps, given my personality type, hearing it from an authority figure might make a difference for me.
He drew me a graph of his expected trajectory for me feeling better, indicating that I might see immediate improvements but there were bound to be regression periods as well where my pain would come back. But that as I carved new neural pathways, it would eventually vanish.
It took me two hours to drive home from his office and I was in excruciating pain the entire way. But I had new hope.
The next day, I woke up and the pain was gone. That was typical for my mornings. But then, it didn’t start up as the clock ticked by the hours. I went the entire day without pain. And the next day. And the next.
Hearing from Dr. Schecter that my pain truly was TMS ended my four year history of chronic pain. I had laid the groundwork and convinced my logical and emotional brain 99% of the way, and hearing from an authority in the field got me the other 1%.
I have had three types of TMS regressions since my chronic pain lifted one year ago.
- Occasional Sit Bone Pain (normal TMS Pain)
I do still have my TMS pain come back from time to time. It regresses quickly now and is never with me for more than 24 hours. The things that trigger it are: other physical ailments like bad sickness, tight hamstring muscle (usually from over-exercise) and being too hard on myself mentally. The pain doesn’t scare me anymore and I know it will be gone soon.
- Back Pain
After a stressful incident, I hurt my back doing yoga and ended up with excruciating back spasms. I’d experienced this before but not for a decade. I do have a herniated disc and spent years blaming my intermittent back pain on this, but I actually don’t think it’s the disc that causes pain, I think it’s tight muscles and spasms. While I lay on the floor, my back in a 9/10 pain spasm, the thought crossed my mind: what if I treat this like TMS? I kept my cool, told myself there was nothing structurally wrong with me, pulled myself off the floor and went on some slow long walks. A decade ago, this same type of incident had me chugging muscle relaxants, pain killers and lying in bed for months of recovery. This time, with a TMS-type approach, I was completely pain free in 36 hours.
- Foot and Leg Tingling
The one lingering question mark in my TMS recovery was peripheral neuropathy. I’d tested positive for peripheral neuropathy in my nerve conduction studies and there was still some concern that there might be something wrong with me that caused that. About six weeks after my sit bone pain subsided, my toes started tingling. Then my feet and ankles. Then my legs. My toes started going numb entirely. Then my fingers. I was scared something was going on, so I went back to Dr. Schecter. He sent me in for another nerve conduction study. The results were negative. The first study was wrong. He told me this was an unusual form of TMS rising again. And he was right. It was born out of the fear that something might still be wrong with me that hadn’t been quite resolved. The tingling and numbness has 95% gone away and what remains I don’t worry about.
Recovering from TMS and chronic pain is a process, and it takes time, but it is possible. My only hope is that my guide on how I did it helps somebody else figure it out. I know that I owe Dr. Sarno and Dr. Schecter my life. I hope that sharing my story can help you recover yours.