Symptoms: A Choice Between Suppression and a Search for Meaning?

It is important to recognize that pain is a very subjective mind-body experience, and there is often a significant psychospiritual component that is calling out for healing.
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Closeup of young woman suffering from back pain
Closeup of young woman suffering from back pain

As a musculoskeletal radiologist specializing in MRI of the joints and spine for 27 years, I have read thousands of scans documenting the ravages of time on the aging human body. However, I am also acutely aware of the presence of numerous MRI studies in the medical literature that demonstrate significant abnormalities in the spine, knee and shoulder in up to 25 percent of asymptomatic "normal" volunteers. It is actually possible to have a disc herniation, meniscal tear or rotator cuff tear without any pain or other symptoms. In fact, it is rather common. How can this be?

In search of an explanation, I will put on my other hat for a few minutes. As a holistic medical practitioner of acupuncture, hypnosis and EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques) for 10 years, I frequently have this conversation with my patients, especially those with low back pain. Many of them come in carrying their MRI scans saying, "This is the cause of my pain." I share with them that some people have similar findings with no symptoms, and they are usually quite puzzled by the information. It undermines their belief in the assumed cause and effect relationship.

To use a dreaded insurance industry term, what if it is a "pre-existing condition" that has nothing to do with the current acute bout of pain? If that is the case and surgery is performed to cure the physical abnormality, will the pain go away? I have seen numerous cases of "failed back" syndrome in patients who undergo multiple operations with no pain relief, perhaps because there are underlying emotional issues that have not been addressed. It is important to recognize that pain is a very subjective mind-body experience, and there is often a significant psychospiritual component that is calling out for healing.

Of course, faced with the risks of surgery, many patients will just want a pill to suppress the pain. It is the shoot-the-messenger approach that we were all taught in medical school pharmacology courses. After studying the elegant signaling pathways of the body in biochemistry and physiology classes, we next learned how to interrupt them all with drugs, albeit with numerous anticipated side effects. In fact, these expected by-products of suppression result in more than 100,000 deaths per year. Our society has decided that this risk/benefit ratio is acceptable to get rid of our symptoms at any cost.

What if that symptom represents an urgent message from your body that your subconscious is attempting to get through to your conscious mind? It might be analogous to having the red oil light come on in your car. Since it could be a sign that your car is dangerously low on oil and at risk for serious engine damage, you would take it immediately to the garage. If the mechanic tells you he knows exactly how to fix the problem, and then takes it back into the shop and cuts the wire to the light, would you think that was automotive malpractice? It seems we take better care of our cars than our bodies.

The alternative would be to treat a symptom as your body's way of getting your attention that something is out of balance in your life. If you ignore it or suppress it, the underlying issue doesn't go away but may need to scream louder before you finally get the message. What if instead you honored the wisdom of the body and made friends with your symptom? For example, there might actually be a meaningful metaphor that can be discovered at the root of your low back pain. It might turn out that someone is "stabbing you in the back," and you need to remove yourself from an unhealthy situation.

There are many other simple metaphors that can be explored for common conditions that are often stress-related in origin by asking relatively simple and straightforward questions. For high blood pressure, what is making you hypertense? For obesity, how many pounds of emotional protection do you need? For diabetes, why don't you have enough sweetness in your life? For gastroesophageal reflux, what is it in your life that you can't stomach? For shoulder pain, what burdens are you carrying? For postnasal drip, why are you experiencing inner crying? The answers are frequently quite revealing.

From this perspective it is often possible to address the psychospiritual roots of the symptoms using any of a number of mind-body-spirit techniques such as EFT. These metaphors or beliefs held in the body usually stem from past negative experiences that need to be released or, in the case of EFT, tapped away. We have been programmed to think that we will have to take these accumulated traumas to our grave with us, but there is increasing evidence in the energy psychology literature that this is not the case. Many people have healed themselves from fears, phobias, and anxieties of all sorts using these approaches.

Our self-healing capacity has been greatly underestimated by our culture and our medical system. It is the true answer to the health care crisis, and it has been available to us all along, although well-hidden and obscured by the drug companies that profit from our ignorance of our own powers.

My journey through the medical labyrinth from conventional radiology to holistic medicine is chronicled in my book, Let Magic Happen: Adventures in Healing with a Holistic Radiologist. For more information about EFT and other resources that may guide you along your path to healing, please see

For more on emotional wellness, click here.

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