A Painful Start to the New Year

Me and my Madame Pearl's cough syrup

Me and my Madame Pearl’s cough syrup

I wanted to hit the ground running in 2015.  Instead, I feel like I just hit the ground.  I spent the first ten days of the year laid out flat on my back with a fever and a hacking cough.

It is not like me to do literally nothing for a week. Even if I am sick, I will usually muddle through. I rarely go to a doctor. I avoid antibiotics. My typical “get-well strategy” could be called “business-as-usual.”  I might cut back on my activity levels, but I’m not very good at resting completely.

Which is why it’s interesting that my body has ways to force me to rest when my mind is too stubborn. Usually, in my case, this is brought on by a herniated disc. For most of my adult life, I have gone through episodes where my back goes into spasm and I am forced to lay flat for 3-4 days.

I like to think that my back is getting better, and maybe that’s why my body had to go to “Plan B” to slow me down this time: a full-blown flu with fever, aches from head-to-toe (even my hair hurt), and a cough so bad and so malingering that my doctor thought I might have pneumonia.

I was literally left with no choice. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t read. I couldn’t do anything but lie in a dark room and let the fever run its course.

This idea that “this is your body’s way of telling you that you need to slow down” is the kind of new-ageism that I usually cringe at. It’s a convenient way of describing something bad in a way that feels comforting and like it has some meaning to it (never mind that it would be hard to validate scientifically.) But it certainly feels true. With the benefit of hindsight, I always feel like I could have avoided these health setbacks with proper rest and recovery time (both mentally and physically.)

One doctor who (somewhat controversially) promotes this idea is Dr. John Sarno, author of Mind Over Back Pain and Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection. Dr. Sarno’s idea is that back pain is most often caused by the mind as “an unconscious ‘distraction’ to aid in the repression of deep unconscious emotional issues” (Wikipedia.) If you fix your back (with physical therapy, let’s say) without addressing the underlying psychological problems, then the pain will just pop up somewhere else (maybe in my case as the flu.)

Even critics of Dr. Sarno’s work agree that the pain research shows pain to be more brain/nervous system related than to physical structures such as herniated discs. But critics don’t agree that pain is always about emotional issues. Massage therapist and pain blogger (OK, he would probably prefer “movement blogger”) Todd Hargrove says, “the purpose of pain is to encourage you to take action to prevent or heal harm to the body.”

Photo credit: Davezilla was taken

Photo credit: Davezilla was taken

An interesting new study on squid (yes, squid) gives some additional insights into the purpose of pain. Researchers noticed that squid that had one of their many tentacles bitten off by a fish exhibited more vigilance and defensive behaviors than their un-injured tank-mates. The presumed pain of their  injury motivated behavior changes that boosted their survival potential.

So perhaps pain is not only about forcing us to alter our behavior in that moment, but also about “teaching us a lesson” so that we will alter our behavior in the future.

Either way, suffice it to say that, in my case, the lesson has been learned. As I return to health (finally!) I move into the New Year a little more tentative and a little more vigilant about my own wellbeing.

References and recommended reading:

Hargrove, T. (2014). A Guide to Better Movement: The Science and Practice of Moving With More Skill And Less Pain. Better Movement.

Sarno, J. (2001). Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection. Hachette Book Group.


By Jeremy McCarthy (@jeremymcc)

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5 Responses to A Painful Start to the New Year

  1. Lisa Sansom (@LVSConsulting) January 13, 2015 at 11:34 am #

    Oh Jeremy – I’m so sorry to hear that you were so sick. We also got hit with several germs / bugs / viruses at the new year in our house too and my husband got pretty much what you did – exact same symptoms. And yes, we all got our flu shots. I think that sometimes we just have to admit our human frailties and be kind to ourselves. Take care of you and hope you’re back at 100% (or better) really soon!

  2. Judy Krings January 13, 2015 at 1:02 pm #

    Sending chicken soup for your body, mind and soul, dear guy. So glad to know you are feeling well. Life gave you a bucking bronco to ride, and he bucked you off but good. Glad to know you are back in the saddle.

    Yup, it is no secret that age matters, but so does mental attitude. A car accident in 2000 changed my life forever. I have had to learn to manage chronic pain. I never thought I would, but I did and still do. Weekly therapy massages over the years helped immensely and so did acupuncture. I tried so many different remedies.

    Now also look back 15 years, I surely did learn a lot. “The Upside of the Dark Side”, as Todd Kasdan and Robert Biswas-Deiner’s book might say. Acceptance of the “negative” stuff offers opportunities. This moment, you have reminded me I need to get up and stretch. Thank you for helping me be mindful my body is aching, now that I notice it. Self-care is calling my name.

  3. Kathryn Stolle January 13, 2015 at 3:09 pm #

    Happy 2015, nevertheless, Jeremy! As an advocate of acupuncture and the relatedness of our bodies, I had it brought back to me just last week when I went for a session for the pain in my right shoulder (some calcification where the supra spinatus connects) and when my acupuncturist touched the corresponding point on my lower left shin, I nearly hit the ceiling!! I have been ignoring my shoulder for over 6 months….

    A reminder that we need to listen to our bodies and not always be so bloody convinced that it’s mind over matter!!

    Take good care of yourself, will you?? 🙂

  4. Sara Firman January 13, 2015 at 10:55 pm #

    So glad you’re taking action and feeling better. Love that pic of you and Madam Pearl. I think she could become your personal wellness taliswoman for a while 🙂

  5. Sheba January 15, 2015 at 4:53 pm #

    Sorry to hear your New Year began with a bust. A friend introduced me to Kyani, which seems promising for back issues. My son has 4 herniated discs and is in constant pain, so I will recommend the book. I have M.S. Appreciate the advice.

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