A condition is psychosomatic when it is, “Caused by mental or emotional problems rather than by physical illness.” Which is just a fancy way of saying that the brain can manifest physical problems where no actual condition exists. So our brains are not just responsible for interpreting stress and pain in the body. Sometimes the brain is responsible for causing pain in the first place.
The Brain-Body Connection
Western medicine has a long history of studying the human brain. However, it is only recently that mainstream medical research has dedicated itself to understanding mental health beyond serious psychological conditions. In other words, science has begun to examine the less extreme mental stresses we experience on a regular basis. This encompasses everything from when neurons fire in the brain when experiencing stress to the physiological effects of these signals. So the brain has a big part to play in how our body experiences pain.
Most people understand pain to be a very linear and one-directional thing. For example, you lift a heavy box causing a slight strain or tear in one of your back muscles. The nerve endings become agitated and send a signal to you brain that something is wrong. You experience pain in the location of the injury and put the box down. As your muscle fibers knit themselves back together again, the nerve endings become less sensitive. Over time the pain subsides and you go back to lifting boxes. So the body experiences a stress and the brain reacts. However, what if it happens the other way around? Now it is the brain that is under stress and the body that is reacting despite being physically fine. This is how psychosomatic back pain works.
Psychosomatic Back Pain
Psychosomatic back pain is caused when a mental stress triggers something in your back making the muscles spasm or contract. The message pathway runs in reverse from the brain to the body instead of from the body to the brain. There is still no definitive research on why some people experience symptoms in their backs and others feel stress elsewhere. Perhaps this is because people who have more sensitive nerve endings in their backs feel it there. What is known is that the brain will sometimes defer emotional stress to the body in order to avoid major psychological pain.
When the Pain is In Your Head
John Sarno is the head of the Outpatient Department at the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine at New York University Medical Center. According to him, that there are a lot of physical conditions that manifest themselves as a way of distracting the mind from unconscious emotional issues. Sarno believes that the brain does this because it is, “Preferable to feel physical pain than to experience deep emotional pain.” So the brain tricks the body into thinking something is wrong so that it does not have to deal with what is actually going on. Psychosomatic conditions are difficult to diagnose. As a result, they often get put into the all-encompassing ‘chronic back pain’ group.
Chronic Back Pain
This literal mind game that the brain plays on the body should come as no surprise to people who experience chronic back pain. These are the people who have had no major injury to their back and still experience back pain. This can be ongoing, chronic pain and/or flare-ups that seem to come out of nowhere. According to psychosomatic pain research, chronic pain does have a root. Which also means it has possible solutions.
Solving Psychosomatic Back Pain
Unlike a real injury to your back that can be managed with pain medication and rehabilitation, there is not quick fix for psychosomatic back pain. Back pain that is the result of psychological stress needs to be resolved by focusing on psychological and emotional well-being. Treatment options are endless when it comes to addressing and managing stress and psychological pain. If you are someone who has experienced previous emotional trauma, you may find that seeing a psychologist or other therapy professional is the best option. However, if you are someone who just has difficulty managing your emotions and stress levels, there are other options for you outside of therapy. Activities such as yoga and meditation offer tools to help manage stress. Anything that helps you to experience your emotions without letting them get out of control is a good place to start.
Even if Your Pain is Not Psychosomatic
Even if you suspect that your back pain may be a result of real strains and pain, check out this post for other solutions. However, taking care of your emotional health will still help with your current physical condition. Any amount of stress management, whether physical or psychological, will benefit the other. A less stressed mind means a less stressed body. Less stress means you get to enjoy life pain-free. It is a win-win situation!
“Psychosomatic.” Def. 1. Merriam-Webster Online. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 29 Aug. 2016.
Farber, Sharon K., Ph.D. “Chronic Pain Syndrome and Other Psychosomatic Illness.” Psychology Today. Psychology Today, 13 June 2013. Web. 29 Aug. 2016.