Thursday, February 17, 2011


How to “Unlearn Your Pain”
Howard Schubiner, MD

There are literally millions of people currently suffering with chronic pain. My work with people with chronic pain has shown me what a devastating impact pain can have on one’s life. Every day, someone tells me that pain has “ruined their life,” or that they have become a “professional pain patient.” Since I started the Unlearn Your Pain program in 2003, I have learned a great deal about pain and I am thrilled to report that we have seen amazing results in the majority of people who enter this program. In fact, a recent follow up study showed that people who entered the 4-week program at Providence Hospital in Southfield, MI had the following results. 67% had at least a 30% reduction in pain at a 6 month follow up evaluation and 54% had at least a 50% reduction in pain. These are remarkable results, given that the average duration of pain was about 9 years!

There are several steps to Unlearning Your Pain and the complete program for healing can be found in my book. In this article, I will offer a synopsis of the steps that I have found helpful in reversing chronic pain.

First, it is critical to understand what is causing the pain. This might seem easy, but often it is more difficult than one might imagine. Those with chronic pain that is caused by cancer often require strong pain medications. I do not work with pain caused by cancer, fractures, or infections/inflammation. However, the majority of people with chronic pain have pain that is diagnosed as fibromyalgia, migraine or tension headaches, or irritable bowel syndrome. The pain in those disorders is just as real as the pain caused by cancer, fractures or infections. However, that pain is not caused by a structural disease process in the body. It is caused by learned nerve pathways. Learned nerve pathways are simply connections between the brain and body that produce actions in the body. If you learned to ride a bicycle as a child, that develops a learned nerve pathway. That pathway will always exist and you’ll be able to ride a bike later in life. Signing a name, eating, walking, and reacting to every day events are all caused by learned nerve pathways. Cutting edge neuroscience has shown that pain pathways can be learned and can persist for year in the absence of a disease process in the body. This is the cause of most chronic pain, including most back and neck pain. (Please see my website or my book for a detailed description of how back and neck pains are typically caused by these pathways.)

Once you have determined that your pain is caused by learned nerve pathways (this is also known as Tension Myositis Syndrome, a term coined by Dr. John Sarno in The Mindbody Prescription, or Mind Body Syndrome, as described in Unlearn Your Pain), the next step is to figure out what has led to the development of these pain pathways. There is a detailed process for doing this in Unlearn Your Pain. Briefly, a careful review of life events is usually sufficient to find connections between stressful life events and the onset of these pain syndromes. Here are a couple of examples that illustrate how stressful life events can trigger severe and chronic pain.

A 45 year old woman was abused both physically and sexually for much of her childhood. She developed anxiety in childhood which was manifest by fear of being alone and the need to connect as much as possible to the people in her life, including her abusers. This is a common reaction to abuse; with the other common reaction being fear and inability to connect to anyone and the inability to feel emotions. She also blamed herself for the abuse and develop the belief that she was unworthy of love and self-esteem. As she grew up, she experienced other events which caused fear and anxiety, such as the loss of a boyfriend (who spread false rumors about her), the death of a parent, a divorce after her husband “cheated” on her and the loss of a job (after being harassed by a boss). Each of these stressors in later life caused the onset of a new symptom. Initially irritable bowel syndrome, then severe headaches, then TMJ pain, then pelvic pain, and finally widespread pain, diagnosed as fibromyalgia.

A 47 year old woman presented with head pain for 17 years. She had seen over 20 physicians, including several headache clinics and had even had facial surgery to try to alleviate the pain. She had also been on over 20 different medications without relief. Her mother was described as “being in her own world” and her father was described as being “bipolar.” When her father was in a bad mood, he would grab her by her collar and scream at her: “You idiot; you jerk; what’s wrong with you?; can’t you do anything right?” These events recurred on a regular basis during her childhood. She developed no symptoms until she was 30 years old. One day, she obtained a new pair of glasses and immediately upon putting them on, she developed pain on the left side of her head which lasted for 17 years. When asked about the stressors in her life when she got her new glasses, she realized that she has just gotten a new boss, who was a “mean and nasty woman” who used to yell and scream at her.

The third step in the process of healing is to recognize that the pain is caused by learned nerve pathways, that there is no serious physical or structural problem in your body, and that you can actually get better! This is a powerful and important step that activates healing and serves to reduce pain.

Finally, I suggest a process to reverse the pain. In the program I’ve developed, it consists of a 4-week course of exercises designed to better understand and cope with stress and emotional distress. The program is contained in Unlearn Your Pain and consists of therapeutic writing exercises, meditative exercises, sets of affirmations, and learning to make necessary changes to promote contentment and well-being. It is truly amazing to see people take on the challenge of changing their lives in order to reverse their pain. Some people get better quite quickly as they learn to let go of anger, guilt, or fear from prior stressful events. Others need to make significant changes in their lives in order to free themselves from stressful situations that are ongoing. Some people gradually work on taking control and stopping their pain over time. The key to resolving chronic pain is understanding what is causing it. If you suffer from chronic pain and haven’t been helped by the traditional medical or alternative health methods, you might be suffering from a condition (learned nerve pathways) that can be reversed. And it might not be that difficult to accomplish.

The story behind Unlearn Your Pain
Howard Schubiner, MD

Unlearn Your Pain began with a single patient who was referred to me about 8 years ago. This woman had severe pain in her back and hip. Despite two surgeries, pain medications, injections, and physical therapy, she continued to have pain and walked with a cane. She contacted me after reading a book by Dr. John Sarno entitled The Mindbody Prescription. This book gave her a completely new and different view of her pain and after reading it and applying its principles, she began to feel better. Her pain resolved within a matter of weeks.

Her story led me on a path of seeking to understand this phenomenon and I met with Dr. Sarno, did a great deal of reading, developed a program that used the principles espoused by Dr. Sarno, and started doing scientific research to document the value of these interventions. The result of all this work over the past 8 years is Unlearn Your Pain.

People who suffer chronic pain have real pain, Doctor’s treat the part of the body that’s feeling the pain, but that is rarely the true source of the pain. If medical tests do not reveal any serious structural problem then chronic pain is due to overly sensitized connections between the brain and the body. Overtime they become wired into the brain’s circuitry. The nervous system learns to create chronic pain.

This book is divided into three parts. The first part (consisting of the first four chapters) describes a new and revolutionary understanding of the causes of most chronic pain. Most people with chronic pain do not have a structural, disease process in the area where the pain is being felt. This is surprising, as most doctors would think that if you have a pain in the arm, there must be something wrong with the arm. Although tumors, fractures, infections and inflammation can cause pain, often the cause of chronic pain is learned nerve pathways.

The second part of the Unlearn Your Pain is a chapter that guides the reader through an exploration of their life and helps them to understand what events led to the development of their pain syndrome. Early life stressors commonly set up learned nerve pathways that can be triggered later in life. For example, a young girl who grows up with a very critical, and emotionally abusive father develops pathways of fear, self-doubt, and self-criticism. If she marries a man who treats her in a similar way, those old pathways are easily activated and her body may react to the internal pressures that result. New pain pathways can develop that are her body’s way to alerting her to the “danger” her husband poses to her. The pain is caused by nerve pathways in the absence of a physical disease process.

The third part of the book is a comprehensive guide to healing chronic pain. There is a 4-week program designed to help people fix their lives and stop their pain. Therapeutic writing exercises form a powerful tool to uncover stressful situations and cope with them better. A meditation CD is included and guides the reader towards changing the pain pathways.
Two research studies have now been conducted demonstrating that this program is effective in promoting reductions in pain, even in people who have had pain for many years. The power of the program is that it gives readers the clear message that their pain is real, but curable, and that they have the power to accomplish this goal.

Unlearn Your Pain is available from or from

1 comment:

YvonneW said...

Looks like a great book to help with pain.