The Whole Story

So what happened to me? How did I end up in chronic pain? It's a long story. So, make a cup of tea and pull up a comfortable chair.

When I was 28 years old, my body suddenly went to war with me. I was a financial journalist, typing thousands of words per week, when my hands and arms began aching so badly I could barely hold a fork, let alone type. The pain was not acute, like a bruise or break, but instead a dull aching throb that radiated all the way up from my fingers through my elbows and shoulders, then up to my neck. It followed me around everywhere - I couldn't get any relief. I couldn't sleep and I could barely work.

I had had twinges of pain before. In my early twenties I would occasionally get some aching in my palms or my neck would feel stiff. But it always went away without too much drama. I would attribute it to a stressful time or adjust my keyboard a bit, but it was never a real worry.

In 2005, this all changed. The worst part was how in the dark I was about what was happening. I assumed that my work and hours spent typing had something to do with the pain, but I knew lots of people who typed for a living and they seemed just fine.

I remember lying in the bathtub in my London flat after a painful day at work, soaking in the hot water, and crying. I was hoping that the heat would dull the pain, but it wasn't working. I remember looking down at my hands and arms in disbelief. They seemed normal, young, healthy, unscarred and certainly not broken. But something was very wrong.

After only a couple of weeks of the pain, when I wasn't sure how much more typing I could take, I had to tell my boss. As a financial journalist for a trade magazine, once a week before deadline I would spend nearly all night typing thousands of words in the hot cramped office five stories above Fleet Street. It wasn't as if I was sitting there crafting thought pieces and pondering each word – the hours spent hunched over my desk typing were gruelling and stressful. And as an American ex-pat on a work permit, held hostage to my British firm’s whims in terms of being allowed to stay in the country, I feared what would happen if I could no longer type my stories out. As we stood in the office's kitchen, which served as our makeshift conference room, with the smell of burnt toast in the air, my boss suggested I turn to that first call in any health emergency, the one whose opinion can give any patient either the glimmer of hope or a creeping panicky feeling – the GP. "You'll feel better when you know what's happening," he said.

My doctor tested the nerves in my hands and said that I hadn't damaged them, but then, in a startling honest admittance said, "I don’t really know what’s causing this pain. You’re going to have to take charge of your own treatment." He followed up by giving me a private referral to a physiotherapist and told me that was a good place to start. Although, he cautioned, he wasn’t recommending this physio, it was just that the guy practiced across the road.

This, however, turned out to be a costly disaster. He and his assistant treated me intermittently week after week for nearly a year. It involved mostly massage, some chiropractic bone cracking, and then being left alone in a room with an electrical muscle stiumaltor (EMS). Later, his assistant would use an ultrasound machine on the sore muscle areas. Then he would tell me to come back next week.

This type of treatment made the pain bearable. Along with a lot of ibuprofen I muddled along. I tried to do my own research as I knew that things weren't getting much better for me. So I did some Internet searches and browsed book shops to see if they had books on Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) – what I thought was the only definition for what I had. But they proved fruitless. I also tried working with someone who taught the Alexander Technique, which is a discipline focusing on bodily coordination, but it didn't seem to alleviate any of the pain. For good measure I also visited various yoga classes and sat in the sauna at the gym, hoping it would help to relax what I assumed were very tense muscles.

Then, on the advice of a friend who had successfully been treated for some serious back problems, I found a good physiotherapist. The first time I went to see her she stood me in front of the large mirror in their treatment room. "Your shoulders should be here," she said, and gently pulled my shoulders back until they were flush with my back and no longer lurching forward, curled in front of me. Everything about my posture was wrong. When I stood or walked, my neck stuck out forwards and my bum stuck out backwards and when I was sitting at the computer I sat hunched over typing. And even though I was relatively slim, the flabby muscles in the front of my neck were starting to give me a double chin. I was going to have to learn how to do everything again – walking, standing and sitting.

There was a lot of work to do. I had to go to see her once per week at first and I had homework. I had to do sets of exercises two times per day. The first consisted of lying on the floor with my head up against some books and just touching my shoulders to the floor 30 times. Sounds easy, but for me it was strangely difficult. Luckily, at the time, I didn’t know how much time I’d be spending on the floor over the next few years.

But I had little choice. My reality was pain and I was being given a lifeline. My new physio, who was a petite lady with a reassuring, but firm, manner, was very encouraging, telling me my body would be completely different when we were done. Whatever she told me to do, I did. And it slowly began to work. But to say it was difficult to get up before work and do 30 minutes of exercise was an understatement. Or to come home from a late night out at midnight or 1 a.m. and immediately hit the floor.

But we did fix my posture and I was doing pretty well with my neck pain. Then my boyfriend and I got engaged, bought a flat and started planning our wedding. After the move, I "threw" my back out, and felt like I was again straight back at the drawing board. It was another few years of physio visits, more exercises and constantly feeling like I was a freak and that my body wasn't normal.

As the years dragged on, other things started to happen. Once my back was better, I sprained my wrists. From just sitting at my desk working. Then my knees started to ache. Finally, it came full circle and in 2013 my neck began to spasm again. I wondered when this would all be over for me, and it was then that I began to suspect that maybe there was something going on that I was missing.

Why did I keep injuring myself in new places, when I hadn't even done anything? How does one sprain one's wrists sitting at a desk typing anyway?

In the spring of 2013 I had taken a four-hour flight to Turkey for a conference that got cancelled and had to turn around the next day and take the trip straight back, while my neck was in spasm the entire time. I started feeling like my body wasn't capable of living a normal life -- I began to think logically about other people being able to sit on long-haul flights or type at their desks without being in constant pain. And it was almost as if my physio confirmed my suspicions that there was a missing link. She said to me at one session that although my muscles were tight, my posture was fine and everything was in the right place. She started asking me about what else was going on in my life. What was stressing me out?

For months I was very upset. I knew that there was something else going on, but how could I fix it? You can't just zap away the ups and downs of everyday life. And who would want to? I have a challenging job, but I don't want anything less. I want to be able to handle an interesting, stressful life.

Then one day I was reading of my favorite bloggers (Alice Bradley) and she happened to write a post that mentioned how she suffers with TMS, or tension myositis syndrome. It's a psychosomatic illness -- not accepted by the mainstream medical profession, mind you -- that causes chronic back, neck and limb pain. John Sarno M.D., a physician and professor of rehabilitation at New York University School of Medicine, is the originator of the diagnosis of this syndrome.

I was fascinated. I went out straight away and bought his book, called the The Mindbody Prescription. And I couldn't believe what I was reading -- it was almost as if the book described what I was dealing with on a daily basis, as if it was written for me. The essence of his theory is that there are people with certain personality traits who tend to internalize and repress emotional pain unconsciously. And the chronic pain is the mind's way of distracting the person from uncovering this. It's essentially a coping mechanism. And the beauty of it? You don't need to do anything other than be aware of it to stop the cycle (well, there's a bit more to it, but not really much more).

The interesting thing about Sarno's theory is that he believes it could extend to other chronic conditions that conventional medicine isn't able to treat effectively, including eczema, migraines, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcers and even fibromyalgia. Thing is, if you have any chronic pain or syndrome that doctors haven't been able to help you with, it's worth a read, because there's nothing really to lose, apart from the 10 quid ($15) price of the book.

I can honestly say that this theory was the missing link for me. I have been processing this information over the past year --  I have now read two books on it -- and have slowly gotten rid of all my crutches, including my physio exercises, my bottles of ibuprofen and that lovely smelling deep heat. And I've started exercising like a normal person again. We were in Croatia this summer and went kayaking one day. I would have never done that a few years ago because I would have been afraid of hurting my back or neck. But I was fine. And I can honestly say that I'm pain free now. I get small flare ups here and there, but they are now just warning signs for me: a good indication that I'm stressed or upset about something.

I sometimes find it difficult to square all the years I spent in physio, wondering if I had read Sarno's book back at the beginning if it would have saved me much pain and agony (not to mention dosh). But maybe it's not that simple. Maybe I wasn't ready to face that the root of the problem wasn't physical. I'll never really know. I do have to thank amazing Super Physio for giving me a lifeline when the pain was at its very worst. She was not only a support physically, but emotionally and mentally. I'll never forget that just when I was reading Sarno's book and wondering if it could in fact be true, I was leaving her office and she said, "you know, you don't have to come anymore, you're strong now." It was almost as if she was giving me permission to believe that I was O.K. physically. And on a very practical level, she fixed my posture, which either as a result of the pain (or just my general hypermobility), was pretty dire. In fact, I still do my physio exercises once a week just to keep my posture in check, and maybe also on some level to remind myself how far I've come.

If you are reading this and you do have any questions about your own struggle with pain or just want to talk, feel free to email me at mindbodyandscroll [at]


  1. Thank you so much for sharing your story! I'm dealing with some debilitating pain in my legs and it's was so great to read your recovery story this morning as I head in to get help today at the sports injury clinic.

  2. Thank you -- keep us posted on how things turn out with your legs. Just remember not to give up even if you don't find help on the first try (thank goodness I didn't do that!).


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