My TMS story

The other day,  I experienced something I’ve not experienced in probably 10 years.  I went for a two mile walk.  Without pain.  And without the usual accoutrements I’ve grown used to using: custom orthotics, a shoe lift, and trekking poles.  But yet even with these, I always finished my walks with an ice massage and ibuprofen.

So this pain-free walk was sort of a big deal to me.  And then I did another walk.  And another.  Over three days, I walked daily…pain free.

First a little history.  I’ve always been an avid walker/hiker.  A 3-4 mile walk- with maybe a little jogging thrown in – was part of my daily routine.  Until I got hit with shin splints – mid-calf pain that was nothing short of excruciating.

That kicked off what was to be 10 years of visiting orthopedic surgeons, physical therapists, podiatrists, chiropractors and sports trainers.  X-rays and MRI’s would reveal swelling but nothing more.  Everyone shrugged their shoulders and tossed out their theories.

The grand finale was when my Achilles tendon blew about five years ago. (You haven’t lived until you experience the pain of a PT digging into a walnut-sized Achilles.)   Again – cause unknown.

I followed every treatment protocol recommended.  Had dry needling (a special kind of hell), ultrasound, acupuncture, massage, Reiki, heck, I joked to my friends that if they knew of a shaman, I’d make an appointment with him.

Any relief was short-term and fleeting.

And as if the shin splint weren’t enough, I’ve been dealing with a litany of other aches and pains.  Headaches lasting a week or longer.  Tendonitis here and there and seemingly, everywhere. And mysterious rashes and lesions. (Ah!  The joy of waiting for biopsy results!)  I blamed everything on a car accident when I was a kid and had been seriously injured.

My doc summed it all up with a fibromyalgia diagnosis. (With fibromyalgia, a person is diagnosed when they have 11 out of 18 “tender points”- certain spots on various muscles that are painful to touch).  I scored 18.

It was a relief to have a diagnosis but it was also devastating.  Is THIS what I have to look forward to?  Costco sized bottles of ibuprofen and physical therapy appointments for the rest of my life?

Through a series of twists and turns down a bunny path, I found Dr. John Sarno’s book, The Divided Mind – The Epidemic of Mindbody Disorders on Amazon.

I had looked at one of his earlier books, Healing Back Pain- the Mind-Body Connection several years ago but had dismissed it since my back issues began with broken vertebrae and later, herniated discs.  Ain’t nobody telling me my back pain was in my head!  

I kept looking at the book and the astounding reviews.  “After reading this book, I was cured of 10 years of horrible pain!”  The vast majority of the reviewers sounded like they had just returned from a faith healing meetin’.  (I also watched clips of interviews on Youtube – especially this one by John Stossel.  I also discovered an amazing group of people – many HEALED of chronic pain, at this forum devoted to TMS.)

But back to the book – I downloaded the sample pages on my Kindle.  And I saw myself among the many case studies.  People like me who are dealing with chronic pain with no answers in sight!

Ever the skeptic, I emailed a wise friend and asked if he had heard of the book.  “Yes,” he replied.  “It revolutionized my life.”  He went on to tell me of how he bought a book for a friend whose wife was bedridden with pain.  The husband read the book to the wife who then got up from the bed, pain-free.

I bought the book and spent the rest of the afternoon and the following day, reading and highlighting it…cover to cover.  And back again.

I learned that I don’t have fibromyalgia.  I have TMS – Tension Myositis Syndrome.  (And actually, fibromyalgia is considered an intense version of TMS.) TMS is a benign condition caused by a mild oxygen deprivation to a muscle which is triggered by repressed and/or sub-conscience emotions.  

Whoa.  Emotions?  Did I just say this was in my head?  Uh yes. But I’m not saying it’s imaginary.  The pain response is VERY REAL.  The symptoms are VERY REAL. And it’s costing billions upon billions of dollars for ineffective treatments…to say nothing of the toll of suffering.

Dr. Sarno, now retired, was a professor of rehabilitative medicine in addition to being a practicing physician for several decades.  He witnessed first hand how much people were suffering and how ineffective standard medical treatment was.

Using some of Freud’s theories of the Id, Ego And Super Ego, he postulated that TMS was cause by the mindbody connection.  Suppressed and subconscious emotions activate the nervous system which then sets in motion the mild oxygen deprivation.  Boom!  PAIN.  Or a host of other ailments, such as gastrointestinal problems, dermatological disorders and soft tissue inflammation.

Sarno states that he has successfully treated over 10,000 patients simply by educating them via lectures or his books.

Why would the brain do this?  The brain is trying to protect you through distraction. Subconsciously, it decides that it would be easier to hurt physically than to sort out painful emotions.

I know it sounds crazy.  I’m still trying to get my mind around this.

So how does one grab hold of this and become pain free?  First, it’s important to rule out any structural issues.  I’ve already done that a gazillion times.  (But keep in mind that even with evidence of say, arthritic changes, the pain response is, in many cases, caused my TMS and NOT by arthritis.)

Next, it’s a matter of recognizing the dynamic taking place.  I’ve been telling myself, “Leg, you ARE FINE.  Your shoulder is fine.  Your head is fine.”  (Sort of like I would ask the neurologist to tell me I have no brain tumor when I was in the midst of one of my raging headaches.  I knew what he was going to say but it always made me feel better just to hear it.)

The other action I took, on the advice Sarno gives in the book, I tossed the orthotics and heel lifts out of my shoes.  And I went for a walk…without my trek poles.

And that, my friend, is when I noticed I had no pain.  Oh…a few twinges here and there.  But not the hot poker mid-calf feeling.

I’d like to say all pain has gone POOF! and disappeared but that is not true.  As a matter of fact, when I started journaling, a very important component in recognizing patterns in pain and emotions, I developed tendonitis in my hand making it difficult to hold a pen.  (And guess what?  With TMS, there’s a thing called “symptom imperative” which means the pain might resolve in one location and then pop up in another.)

An important thing to remember is to quit looking for physical causes and acknowledge that this is a mindbody thing.

And yes, some people are instantly healed.  Others must contend for it.   (It would appear I’m going to have to walk some of this out but that’s okay.)  Sarno estimates about 80% of folks are helped immediately and over a period of a few months.  Some folks require psychotherapy from a therapist trained in TMS, but they are among the minority.

My action list so far is: Resume the activities that I have forsaken because of fear of bringing on more pain. (Like vacuuming…that has been a migraine trigger.  I vacuumed the other day with no problem.)  I’ve ditched all the stuff I’ve accumulated over years of PT – ankle support, wrist support, etc.  I journal daily and record dreams when I have them. I’m owning up to some deep emotions and painful issues.   I’m learning how to make boundaries with some people that drain me…instead of suffering silently and feeling like a victim.  I am also keeping an “Evidence” record to remind myself of the growing victories in taking my life back.

Most importantly, I am also envisioning a future free of pain and full of hikes and lap swimming.

Our brains are amazing.  No matter your view, evolution or creation, I think we can all agree the brain is beyond our understanding and marvelous in its functions.  Through understanding some of these mindbody dynamics, we can harness its strength and healing inherent with every human being.

If you’ve made it this far in my lengthy epistle, thank you!  I hope if you’re dealing with pain, it will encourage you to check out Dr. Sarno’s book.

And be sure and let me know what your experience is.

Thanks again for reading…here’s to a bright and pain-free life!


3 thoughts on “My TMS story

  1. Thank you so much for your candid account of your journey with TMS. It is extremely helpful I too had a similar journey which started with sciatic pain only at night, if I slept with my legs bent for too long. Imagine. Just crazy. But this pain extended into the day time and eventually it was causing problems in my going up the stairs. I initially went to the doctor thinking I had something wrong with my kidneys (the pain seemed to be coming from that region), but they couldn’t find anything, and the descriptions of my pain left them looking at me funny. So I took to doing stretches, yoga, whatever I thought would help. Nothing. It crept and crept and made long flights impossible due to back spasms. And then I encountered Dr. Sarno’s book, Healing Back Pain – the Mind-Body Connection. I was an instant convert. I stopped doing all my exercises and avoided anyone who talked about back pain and how weak our backs are that we must lift this way or that. Hog wash! My sciatic pain almost disappeared. It gets flared up now and again but it’s quite insignificant and I know how to address it: by focusing on my emotions. I like to use it as an alarm clock that reminds me that I need to pay attention to myself. And it usually goes back into obscurity, disappearing and letting me enjoy a pain-free existence.

    However, lately I’ve been having pain in the joints of my fingers. At first I wasn’t sure if arthritis is caused by TMS, so I just assumed I have arthritis. But upon reading one of my Dr. Sarno’s books again (I love re-reading these for a tune-up), arthritis was there as a TMS alternate. I have talked to my hands and my brain, and the pain comes and goes. My skin is also prone to rashes, and I have to talk to myself to get them under control. It’s manageable, but it scared me that my hands hurt now.

    On re-reading the books, I stumbled on journaling to address repressed emotions to tackle TMS. How did I miss it in my previous readings? So I’ve just this week begun to journal and journal. Every chance I get. I read about a woman who was overseas and had no access to therapy in English, and so she journaled and journaled about 2-3 hours a day, and in a matter of months, her pain receded and eventually subsided. How great is that?

    I am interested, and hopeful, to see how journaling will impact my tackling TMS. Again, thank you so much for your inspiring story. I really appreciate all the details you included as it made me feel very understood!!

  2. Happy Day, your post made my day happy! Thank you so much for reading and sharing your story with me. Not only are you a wonderful writer, I love hearing about your journey as well.

    I am delighted that you “got it” so quickly too. I had to drag on in pain for so many years before my defenses softened enough to benefit from Dr. Sarno’s wisdom and expertise.

    I popped over to your avatar – WHOA! Two masters while working fultime! You totally fit the TMS profile in that aspect. I love your email addy too. Are you teaching in Spain by any chance? My son will be venturing to Spain in June for a month.

    Thanks again for reaching out! Warmly, Theresa

  3. I am new to this avatar world and had totally forgotten that I had written that about my masters. You made me chuckle because you’re absolutely right about fitting the perfectionistic and goodist profile that Dr. Sarno talks about. Too true for me! Yes, I am teaching Spanish. Your son will love Spain.

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