By: Marion Cunningham
In 2016, one in three Americans suffers from chronic pain. That’s more than 100 million Americans, more people than those who have diabetes, heart disease, and cancer combined. It costs our medical system billions of dollars and no one’s getting better. Over the years I’ve met many folks suffering from chronic pain as I’ve worked on my documentary, This Might Hurt. Here are a few of the surprising things I’ve learned along the way:
1. Chronic pain can happen to anyone.
Chronic pain comes in all forms and affects all types of people. It can happen to you regardless of your age, health level, or family history. The youngest person featured in the film was 17, and he has been in pain since he was 12 years old. He suffers from leg pain caused by a syndrome known as Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, which has no cause and no cure. Because of his illness, he’s missed out on so much of his childhood and worries that his future is also at risk.
2. Many doctors are stumped by chronic pain.
Despite the alarming number of cases of chronic pain, most physicians aren’t very well-trained in the problem and our medical system is having a tough time finding the answers. The common treatments are pain pills, nerve-blocking injections, and surgeries.
These treatments generally reduce pain by a point or two but rarely offer sustainable relief. And prescription narcotics have been all over the news lately because of the shockingly high rates of addiction and overdoses that they cause.
3. Pain is actually a message from our bodies.
When you experience an injury, nerve cells in the afflicted area send signals of distress to your brain. These signals are processed in your subconscious, and that’s what creates the feeling of pain. It’s a rapid-fire messaging process to protect you from danger. When pain becomes chronic, this messaging system is flooding your body with danger signals all the time.
4. Stress doesn’t just worsen pain, it can cause pain.
As my partner and I worked on This Might Hurt, we became fascinated by the work of Dr. Howard Schubiner, who specializes in psychophysiological disorders, which are disorders caused by stress. Chronic pain patients often turn to him after years of attempting mainstream medical interventions with few results.
We met one woman who was bedridden with stomach spasms and fibromyalgia for eight years before she became his patient. After undergoing his treatment, she’s now back to a normal life. Dr. Schubiner’s work, called mind-body medicine, supposes that if pain is a message caused by danger signals, those signals can also come from stressful emotional events as well.
Research actually shows that our brains process intense emotional situations (abuse, abandonment, grief) in similar ways as physical ones. His method attempts to treat the underlying emotional causes of pain, in the absence of physical abnormalities.
5. But that doesn’t mean it’s all in your head.
Every day, chronic pain patients see doctors who take blood tests and do scans of the body and yet can’t find anything physically wrong. So many of the people I met had been told by one or more of their doctors, “It’s all in your head.” But people with pain that has no clear physical cause are not imagining their pain. Their pain is real. And dismissing it as “all in the head” only makes the suffering worse.
6. Meditation doesn’t only help your stress, it can also relieve pain.
A large component of mind-body medicine is meditation, which has been proven to be more effective than a placebo at easing chronic pain. It can also help the mind detach from the cycle of fear that accompanies the onset of pain, with questions like “Will I have to go to the hospital?” “Will it last forever?”
Being mindful of what was happening around the time of the onset of pain can lead to a deeper understanding of its emotional causes. Noticing whether something particularly stressful was happening when the pain started can help you determine whether there’s an emotional connection to the physical symptom.
7. There is always hope.
Chronic pain can lead to depression, anxiety, and in the worst cases, suicide. Many chronic pain patients feel misunderstood and alone. But this disease affects all of us, whether you are a sufferer, a medical professional, or a family member of someone in pain.
When you’re in constant pain, it’s hard to imagine ever being pain-free. But throughout filming I met countless people who have resumed normal lives after years of suffering. There is always hope. Meditate on that.