The Abyss of Chronic Pain

By David Hanscom, MD, Guest Columnist

One afternoon, I was listening to a pain patient attempt to describe the depth of her suffering, and it hit me how dark and deep this hole of chronic pain can be.

I had a flashback to my own experience with pain. Not only did I not know how I ended up in that level of misery, I had no hope and wasn’t being given any answers. I kept descending deeper and deeper into darkness.

Words couldn’t come close to describing my physical and mental suffering, but the image that came to mind was a deep dark abyss. I will never forget what it was like to be there and trapped in the abyss for over 15 years.

One night, I was driving across a bridge when suddenly my heart began to pound.  I couldn’t breathe, began sweating and became light-headed. I thought I was going to die. It was the first of many panic attacks. And it became much worse. I sank into a deep depression.

guy-2617866_640.jpg

I honestly had no clue at the time that my anxiety and other symptoms were all linked together by sustained levels of stress hormones, such as adrenaline, cortisol and histamines.

I couldn’t sleep because of endless racing thoughts. My ears were ringing and my feet constantly burned. I began to get migraine headaches weekly. My scalp itched, and skin rashes would pop up all over my body and then disappear. I experienced intermittent crushing chest pain.

As unpleasant as these physical symptoms were, it wasn’t the worst part of the story.

I began a relentless search for answers. What was happening to me? My life went from being a hard-working young physician with a bright future to just trying to survive. As a spine surgeon in a large city, I had access to the best medical care and underwent all sorts of imaging and blood testing. No one could tell me what was going on. I became increasingly frustrated and moody.

After seven years of this, I lost my marriage. No marriage could have survived the obsessive energy I was using to try and escape from the abyss.

My anxiety progressed to a full-blown obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which is characterized by repetitive and vivid intrusive thoughts. It was brutal. I had always thought that OCD was a joke, but it may be the worst mentally painful experience in human existence. I looked up the treatment and prognosis for it, and it was dismal.

My mind began to play tricks on me. I become an “epiphany addict.” I was sure I could find an answer if I looked hard enough. I read book after book, saw doctors, tried different medications, practiced meditation, and discussed my situation with anyone who would listen. That number grew smaller, as people got tired of listening to me and I became increasingly socially isolated.  

Every aspect of this experience was miserable but the loneliness I felt was the worst. Being alone, I had more time to think about my misery and became fearful that people didn’t want to be around me. I hadn’t realized how terrible being lonely could be.

I wanted to quit being a doctor, but my instincts told me to hang on. I still enjoyed performing complex spine surgery and running my practice. I liked my staff, colleagues and patients. In retrospect, that may have been the one thing that provided the structure to keep me going. My personal life had disintegrated.

As I write this column, I still feel woefully inadequate to find the words to characterize the intensity of my suffering. I was in this hole for over 15 years and crossed the line to end it all.

Learning How to Feel Good Again

Then in 2003, I picked up a book by Dr. David Burns, called Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy.” It’s about self-directed cognitive behavioral therapy.  Burns was adamant from the beginning of the book that the key to recovery was to start writing. His format is a three-column technique where you write down your disruptive thoughts, categorize them into one of 10 “cognitive distortions,” and then write down more rational thoughts.

I began to write for hours and for the first time in 15 years felt a shift in my mood and thinking. Burns is right, the act of writing is important. There are now over 1,000 research papers documenting the effectiveness of this approach.  

Six months after I began this therapy, I connected (badly) with my deep-seated anger and was completely miserable for about 2 weeks. But as I emerged from this fog, I began to feel better. All of my physical symptoms eventually disappeared, including my headaches, burning in my feet, anxiety, and tinnitus.

It all goes back to the stress hormones. When you are trapped by anything, especially pain, your body is exposed to sustained levels of stress chemicals and each organ will react in its own specific way. Today, my symptoms remain at minimal levels unless they are triggered, and I have learned how to quickly return to feeling good.

There are many additional layers to the healing journey that are presented on my website. Each person will relate to the concepts in a different way, but the outcomes have been consistently good. There is a recent research paper that shows simply learning about the neuroscience of chronic pain can significantly reduce it.

I got incredibly lucky and feel fortunate to be able to pass along these healing concepts to my patients. It has been an unexpected and rewarding phase of my career.

David Hanscom.jpg

Dr. David Hanscom is a spinal surgeon who has helped hundreds of back pain sufferers by teaching them how to calm their central nervous systems without the use of drugs or surgery.

In his book Back in ControlHanscom shares the latest developments in neuroscience research and his own personal history with pain.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.