By Loolwa Khazzoom

Health Report Article in AARP January & February 2009  

For Black and White Reprints of this article call: AARP 866-888-3723

 Scientists don’t always know why these alternative therapies make the hurting stop.  But a growing body of evidence suggests they work.   In the early 1980’s Cynthia Toussaint was a promising young dancer, close to snagging a role in the hit TV series Fame.  But then she tore a hamstring in ballet class.  Usually such tears heal on their own, but in Toussaint’s case the injury led to the development of complex regional pain syndrome – a little-understood disease characterized by chronic pain that spreads throughout the body and can be so excruciating that even the touch of clothing hurts.

Toussaint had become one of the many Americans suffering from chronic pain – as many as 76 million, according to the American Pain Foundation – who are dealing with everything from arthritis to cancer.  And like many pain patients, she struggled to convince doctors her symptoms were real.  Toussaint says she was refused X-rays, misdiagnosed, and dismissed as crazy.  “One doctor patted me on the head, saying, “You’re making a mountain out of a molehill, darling.  You need to see a psychologist,” she recalls.  Meanwhile her disease – often reversible if treated early – only got worse.

 Bedridden and folded up in a fetal position, she was unable to brush her hair, shower, or use the bathroom unaided.  She teetered on the verge of suicide.  Finally, after 15 years, a switch in medical plans introduced her to doctors who believed her.  But by that point, the pain medications they prescribed could not reverse her condition.  Worse, the drugs left her with a slew of side effects.

Toussaint wanted to try physical therapy for pelvic pain, and a movement therapy called Feldenkrais, ideas her doctor initially dismissed.  “He rolled his eyes and said, ‘It’ll never help,” she remembers.  Ultimately, however, the move led her into the world of alternative therapies – and saved Toussaint’s life.

 When she first began working with a physical therapist, Toussaint was so sensitive that the slightest touch caused her intense pain.  So the therapist, sitting at Tousssaint’s bedside, used guided imagery, a deep-relaxation method scientifically proven to reduce pain levels.   In guided imagery, a therapist helps a patient imagine herself in a calming place.  Many patients visualize going to the beach or the mountains.  Toussaint conjured up a make-believe ballet class, where week after week the therapist followed Toussaint’s verbal cues to guide her through elaborate combinations that she ‘danced’ in her head.

Her body quickly began unfolding.  Within one month of starting the three-times-a-week guided imagery sessions, she could sit up, walk around her condominium, and shower without help.  Perhaps most significantly, she was able to receive hands-on physical therapy, which further reduced her pain.  She later confounded For Grace, a nonprofit that helps people with chronic pain. 

How is it possible that simply by engaging her imagination, Toussaint began healing her pain?  New advances in neuroscience shed light  on the process, says Martin Rossman, M.D. author of Guided Imagery For Self-Healing (New World Library, 2000).  “While acute pain appears in areas of the brain that are connected to tissue damage, chronic pain lives in other areas of the brain – the prefrontal cortex and limbic system, which the brain uses for memories, especially emotional ones,” Rossman says.  In some cases “the pain lives on long past the time when the body tissues have healed.” 

 Repeated thoughts and emotions create nerve pathways in the brain.  Chronic pain impulses travel along well-worn pathways.  By using techniques such as guided imagery to build new nerve pathways, “the pain pathways can become less active,” Rossman says.  (See Article By Dr. Hugh Harmon Below)

 Guided imagery and Feldenkrais, the therapies that helped Toussaint, are only two out of more than a dozen alternative therapies that have been scientifically documented to ease chronic pain when drugs can’t.  And they frequently can’t, says James Dillard, M.D., D.C., co-author of The Chronic Pain Solution (Bantam, 2003).  “Even if we prescribe medication as well as we can, on average we are still only going to take away between 50 and 60 percent of your pain.”

 This is not to say that drugs have no place in pain treatment.  Experts agree that medication is a necessary and sometimes lifesaving part of the pain management equation.  “People need to function in their lives,” says David Simon, M.D., cofounder, CEO and medical director of the Chopra Center for Wellbeing in Carlsbad, California.  “There’s clearly a role for appropriate pharmaceuticals.” 

 The latest trend, says Steven Stanos, D.O. medical director of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago Center for Pain Management, is to take a more comprehensive approach to treating chronic pain, a “bio-psycho-social approach.”  The “bio,” or biological part, means treating the physical or underlying pathology – and where possible, its root cause. The “psycho,” or psychological, part addresses the depression, fear, and anxiety that can accompany and even exacerbate the experience of chronic pain.    The “social” part pertains to a patient’s ability to function, work, sustain friendships, and maintain status in society.

 If a clinician ignores any of the biological, psychological, or social impacts of chronic pain, Stanos says, “it may become a struggle to successfully treat patients.”    Very few doctors have specialized training in pain management.  In fact, only 3 percent of U.S. medical schools offer a separate course in it.  So if you suffer from chronic pain, you’re probably going to have to become an expert yourself.  “I think the person with pain should see it as a journey,” advises Simon.  “They have to be the captain of that ship.” 

 That proposition can feel daunting enough when you’re well and helping a family member through a difficult diagnosis.  But when you are the one in pain, managing your case yourself may be an overwhelming challenge.  That’s why Mary Pat Aardrup, senior vice president of the National Pain Foundations, recommends enlisting a friend or family member as an advocate – someone who can research treatment options and interview both conventional and alternative health practitioners. 

 Make sure the practitioners you find are willing to work together.  When everybody shares information, you’re more likely to get the most accurate diagnosis and best care.  Curing the root may resolve the problem – as in the case of Lyme disease.  But “assuming that you have a disorder for which there is no easy fix,” advices Simon, “begin a process of trying to relieve yourself of that pain, starting with the most noninvasive and then gradually working your way into more invasive approaches.”  If a therapy doesn’t offer relief within a few weeks, experts say, try something else. 

When choosing therapies to try, “it’s important to think critically,” says journalist Paula Kamen, who wrote All In My Head (Da Capo Press, 2006), about her quest for relief from chronic daily headache.  “There is so much desperation that makes us vulnerable as chronic-pain patients.”  Be wary of anyone who promises to cure any problem, she says.  Also, understand any risks before you participate.  And remember, you can quit at any time – even in the middle of a session- if something doesn’t feel right.


            By Hugh Harmon, Ph.D. 

One of the most common of human experiences is pain.  Pain is a design by our ‘designer’, the Greater Creator of All, to save us from destruction and/or future suffering.  I’m speaking of physical pain but really emotional pain could be included in this.

The physical pain sensate is designed to save us, a message to warn us of a threat against our person, a signal, if you would, of damage to our physical body.  Nature’s way of saying, “Hey, we’ve got a problem here, fix it before the damage gets worse and possibly kills us.” 

“Sure,” you say, “I know that!”

But do you know how the system works and/or why chronic pain may be an unnecessary problem caused by conditioned reflex? 

Sooooo, by neutralizing pain without drugs, billions of dollars a year may be saved by re-education of our God given cell saving system.

For an example of conditioned reflex let’s look at Fido after a bandage has been removed from a sore paw or broken leg.  Fido continues to refuse to use the leg that had been bandaged.  Or let’s consider a human who burns a hand and continues to avoid heat thereafter or a child who gets a pain to avoid doing what is to the child painful chores.    All fall into a rather classic category of a chronic pain conditioning called ‘phantom pain’; the pain is there, but it is being caused by the effect of pain stimuli in the brain, not by the original physical source of the pain.  Well, let me explain how the pain system works so this may make some sense to you.

The physical phenomenon is as follows:  The injured cells send an electrical signal to the peripheral nerves which then send the signal along the spinal cord to the brain.  The signal reaching the thalamus in the brain is then sent to parts of the brain to determine the location or origin of the injury, the extent of the damage and whether the signal is slight enough to be ignored.   Yes, our own neural blocking system can block the pain signal if the pain is determined to be unnecessary.  So the ‘mind over matter’ statement is born; we can control pain. 

Women have more sensors in their body so they learn to unconsciously block or ignore pain better than men.  Sometimes through necessity the body’s natural “opiodes” may block the pain signal from reaching the “pain brain”, thus we say, “I’m ignoring it, until it goes away!”

At this point let me say I have successfully used hypnosis to anesthetize many people for major surgery in which they remained awake, alert and conversant, but felt no pain.  In one such case of stomach surgery, the patient and I were both under the watchful eye of an anesthesiologist standing at the ready should chemical anesthesia become necessary.  At one point the patient said he felt a ‘burning feeling”.  I responded with the suggestion,  “It is all gone now for good and all feels comfortable now”.  The patient responded perfectly, agreeing the feeling had indeed passed and he did feel comfortable. 

“How did you do that?!” the anesthesiologist exclaimed after the operation was finished.   I explained I had put the patient into a very awakened state of hypnosis in which he would readily accept my suggestions to not feel pain.  The patient’s very strong conscious and subconscious desire to not feel pain eliminated any resistance to accepting my suggestions.  The anesthesiologist then told me the surgeon had been disgruntled that his patient had requested hypnosis for open stomach surgery rather than anesthesia and had applied a very strong caustic substance to the open stomach to ‘prove’ hypnosis was not sufficient anesthesia.  Instead, it became a great demonstration of the power of ‘Mind over Matter’ for a not very nice surgeon and a very impressed anesthesiologist. 

Just think how the health system could benefit from this ‘Mind over Matter” technique.  As a nation we spend over Three Hundred And Fifty BILLION Dollars a year trying to help war veterans deal with long-term, or chronic, pain.  The great problem with chronic pain is the pathway to the brain becomes a ‘disease’ of its own.  The pain pathways to the brain become pathologically overactive after years of stimulus.   The allopathic approach to this is to block the pathways with opiods – chemicals that confuse the path of pain or block the sodium ion signal path.  Yet, just as I use hypnosis to teach very comfortable and pleasant techniques for birthing as well as for surgical procedures, we can use ‘mind over matter’ to reprogram the brain response for sufferers of chronic pain due to conditioned reflex.    

My dear friends, there is always a reason for that which we experience in life.  I call it our ‘life lessons’, or that which we came to learn from our life of experience on this earth.  Perhaps the biggest conundrum of life is why terrible pain and suffering still exist without great change or help to those suffering pain. 

Yes, we dope people up to stop the most critical suffering, we mask the sensate, we divert the attending signals, but not much else has been done . . . including the widespread use of hypnosis which I learned in medical school in the 1950’s.   Yet, hypnosis still is on the bottom of the list of alternatives for pain.  Why? 

Well folks, I think it is because hypnosis is very misunderstood!  A proven technique that has been used for centuries, successfully, is ignored!   We could repeat the phrase “It’s all about money” but I think it goes further.  I think it is more about fear.

People have been so mislead by religions, motion pictures, television and stage shows, the masses still have fear of a centuries old method that is proven to reduce and/or eliminate pain from most causes.  In general, people are confused or ‘out of touch’ with the simple reality of the use of altered states.  It is a simple as a mother kissing her child’s ‘boo-boo’ on a scrapped appendage to “make it all better” and the use of ‘suggestion’ to painlessly amputate appendages in battlefields when there is no morphine to use.  There are many names for these natural phenomena of the brain/body ability to block pain but it all boils down to ‘mind over matter’.

This ability is given us to cope with discomfort and pain.  Children fall and slightly injure themselves only to jump up and continue their play.  Then they are taken to their doctor for a shot that will be less painful than a slight pinprick and they put up a noisy fuss.  Why, one would ask?  Well, we might respond, it’s ‘mind over matter’.  Conditioning to an experience causes anticipation, which has a great deal to do with the outcome. 

I have seen people wounded in battle or in a car accident not know they have been wounded until they or someone else notices the wound . . . which then immediately begins to pain them. 

So, how to teach ourselves to cope with pain other than using a chemical pain blocker?  Well, I propose, we recognize and realize the power of our mind controlling our neurological system’s signaling the life preserving state of danger to life and limb, which is, I would add, very important to our lives.  I am not here to judge pain right or wrong for it certainly has its purpose, but I know we can exert a great deal more control over physical pain than is generally supposed.  I have personally known people who can stick a knife through the muscle of their arm, then go to sleep lying on a bed of three inch sharp nails.  I have walked over glowing coals without damage to my feet or feeling any discomfort.  Such demonstrations teach us we are capable of much more than many, maybe even most, people allow themselves to believe or experience.  .

So I propose to you today that we all find a way to exercise control of ‘mind over matter’, thus giving

ourselves a great plethora of ways we can enjoy life by enhancing life with the power of our ‘wonder-full’ mind

 to control the entire body.  Every cell, every organ, every function is a subject of our own great minds.     

For A Defusing Chronic Pain Guided Imagery/Hypnosis Recording by Dr. Hugh Harmon
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