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A Mind-Body Hack for Musculoskeletal Pain

The lenses we view things through can change our experience.

My Dad had a plate in his skull and a tendency to grow benign tumors in the meninges surrounding his brain. He suffered debilitating headaches, was disabled and unable to perform his work, took opiates and hoped the symptoms would shut up long enough to allow him to complete some of his daily activities. I suffered headaches myself growing up – horrible migraines that made me miss much of my fourth grade year lying in a dark room trying not to cry instead of being in class. I underwent many diagnostic tests, EEG’s, etc., until we figured out it was my eyes and visual system that was fighting itself so hard that the exhausted muscles and escalated muscular tension initiated my headaches. It took 2+ years of Behavioral Optometry therapy to correct my habits, bring my visual system into harmony and correcting the source of my own headaches. When I began Massage School, I started noticing occasional sharp shooting pains in the back of my skull. The first thought that would pop up in my head was “Am I growing my own tumor?”, this thought would make my brow furrow and shoulders tense with concern and seem to increase the intensity and frequency of the stabbing pain in the back of my head.

One day in kinesiology class we were learning and feeling the origin and insertion of the occipitalis muscle on our own bodies.

Occipitalis Muscles. Image source: By Anatomography – Anatomography (setteing page of this image), CC BY-SA 2.1 jp,

It didn’t take much poking to realize the tender soreness of my occipitalis lurked just below the radar of my conscious awareness ( I had to poke it/look into it to have the sensations in the area register). It was the same locale where I’d feel my stabbing pains. As we learned the movements and postures that were involved, it didn’t take me very long to feel that the muscles relaxed when I’d reduce my head-forward-posture. They were part of the team working hard to keep my head from falling forward on my desk, and could chill out when I put some effort into balancing the weight of my skull upon a more vertical neck. It was the first time the thought crossed my mind: “Maybe it’s not a tumor, and is just overworked muscles causing my shooting pain?”. I noticed my brow relax, my shoulders drop, and the tenderness in my occipitalis decrease as this thought washed over me.

Suddenly my internal experience wasn’t so scary, the stress reduced and my tension and pain diminished. Was this what the shooting pain had been trying to tell me all along? Was it just a cry for attention, hoping to point out my habits that were causing it’s suffering? In this case the answer was yes.

Many musculoskeletal pains in our bodies are the same thing- some part of us calling out for attention and care because it’s suffering under current habits and operating conditions. These parts of us are calling us to the negotiating table to ask: do we need to keep doing this?

Here’s the Hack:

-Postural patterns and habits: the way we subconsciously hold ourselves to feel “normal”.

-Movement patterns and habits: The way we subconsciously move and express force to feel “normal”.

-Compensation patterns and habits: The way we hold and brace ourselves to control painful experiences in hopes of feeling “normal”.

What if we think of them all as “Confidence Patterns”? They’re doing their best trying to help us feel “normal” and confident, like: I’ve got this, I can control my experience in this moment.

I find it very helpful to think of my uncomfortable experiences this way. They’re just a part of me trying their hardest to help me feel together in this moment, using the skills and knowledge they’ve learned to date to do so. Sometimes, it’s just my own repetitive patterns that create the very suffering I’m feeling.

Looking through this lens, pain feels like less of an adversary to be battled, and more like a hurt child, in need of caring and guidance. It prompts the questions, “What do you need and how can I help?”, rather than the common attitudes and strategies of symptom suppression, silence, control and submission.

Clients will often say, “This is my bad leg, knee, hip, ____insert any body part here____.” They’ll use dispossessive language when referring to a part of themselves, such as “The neck, the back, the knee, etc.” rather than possessive language of ownership: “My neck, my back, my knee, etc.”. If we apply the hurt child metaphor, we can imagine how a hurting child would be difficult to communicate with, or be influenced positively by a parent that calls them “The bad kid” or “The problem child”, with the hopes they’ll straighten out and shut-up. Yeah, I’d shut my ears down too if I was that kid. It’s way easier to get them to open up to you if you acknowledge their hurt and ask them if and how you can help them work through it.

To sum up the hack: First try relating to your pain as though it’s a suffering part of you (child you) that is trying it’s hardest to help and serve you to feel “normal”, confident and in control, but is asking for your attention, listening, compassion and caring rather than taking an adversarial position toward it. Sure, some pains come from actual adversaries that need a true ass-kicking: infection, cancer, etc., but it’s super useful for getting to the bottom of if an invasion is occurring by first checking with the suffering children and victims of poor habits. If caring for the kids/victims doesn’t resolve a situation, it’s a good indicator that you need more information and some outside help to sort it out. Caring for rather than suppressing suffering is the way to go.

I hope this is useful perspective for you. I’d love to hear your questions or comments.

Along these lines I’m also including my latest video: Muscle and Shoe Imbalances to Consider in Restoring Foot Health. Are your foot pains coming from your leg and foot “children” that have been trapped in and developed their habits within their shoe cages? Maybe… listen to them with compassion and love them with all your heart.

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