Why Writing Can Alleviate Back Pain: A Surgeon Explains

Written by Dr. David Hanscom

When patients come to see me about their problems with chronic pain, the very first thing I ask them to do is begin writing. Their assignment is to write once a day (more often if they want) and to focus on their negative thoughts.

Once these negative thoughts are set down, preferably on paper, I instruct them to instantly destroy what they've written.

If this sounds silly or pointless (I promise, it isn’t) and the act isn't merely symbolic, either. Nothing meaningful will occur until you engage in exactly this way. Don’t think about it, don’t question it. Just do it. You'll come to see how valuable it is later.

This process is essential to healing your chronic pain, and you'll begin to get better the day you begin to write. Even if you don't want to own your thoughts, write them down. Then rip up, crumple, trash or burn the document.

OK. But what does this have to do with pain?

This is not so you can “get rid of the thoughts” but rather because doing this will allow you to write with freedom. The nervous system is extremely complex. A small percentage of connections in the brain are going to result in thoughts that are bizarre, crazy, despicable, unspeakable, and simply unacceptable at every level.

The more you try to suppress your dark thoughts, the stronger they will become. Writing them down and then destroying them acknowledges them and allows you to separate from them.

The program I created, an alternative to spine surgery, treats pain neurologically, not psychologically. We working with the central nervous system aspect of pain. Traditional psychology may have its place in your healing and well-being, but it won't help you out of your pain.

I truly believe that when you talk about your pain, you're just reinforcing the pathways — when you do that, nothing will change.

Just Thoughts …

A thought is only a series of connections between neurons within your brain. There is no substance to it. None. The fact that your body may secrete chemicals (like cortisol and adrenaline, hormones associated with stress) in response to a thought makes it seem real, as though it is part of your identity but it's not. That's why your goal is to bring this thought to life as vividly as possible, so you can then process it and detach from it.

When you write, three things happen:

  1. You create a new neurological pathway by associating the thought with sight and feel
  2. You create a “space” between you and that thought
  3. You slow down the neurological circuits that start spinning in response to your thought.

For instance, think about how you'd feel if you write down the words, “My daughter is lazy.” Just doing this will slow your thinking from its automatically going into a downward spiral.

You may notice, for example, that you have just labeled her. In addition, you've read those words with your eyes, so the thought goes back into your brain on a different circuit. You have also felt your hand guide your pen to write the words, so these words are now associated with a sense of feel.

All of this helps you to see the effect that having this thought may have had on you (not to mention its effect on your relationship with your daughter). You now have an opportunity to make a choice ... to create an alternative response, which will result in a new neurological circuit.

Some people say that it's also helpful to speak such thoughts out loud, which would then allow it to go back into your brain through your auditory nerve. That's yet another pathway you can activate.

The net effect of all of this is that you have dramatically heightened your awareness of the offending thought and reinforced the fact that you have a choice.

My Experience

I have personally practiced variations of these exercises for many years and I still do them. I don't plan to stop, ever. For years I struggled with chronic pain; this writing process finally pulled me out of a severe, anxiety-driven depression.

During this time, I also had the support of a psychologist and psychiatrist and there's no question that they were extremely helpful. However, the core of the process was the repetitive writing on an almost daily basis.

One more important point: this writing process is not a quick fix! The results are not instantaneous. The purpose of writing is to start connecting yourself with you. That is all. The rest will occur at its own pace.

You can't write with an agenda and you can't write to find a fix. But the more effort you put in, the more quickly you'll notice changes. You may feel unnatural with this process at first, but please stay with it.

Within a couple of weeks, any initial discomfort you feel at expressing these thoughts will diminish. The energy spent in trying to deal with them will be available for you to live on your terms. The effects of this simple tool are deep and consistent. It's just the way the brain works.

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