Normal Abnormalities

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Friday night some of the teachers and I went to see a documentary called All the Rage: Saved by Sarno. We were invited by the film’s makers who have been contacting health and wellness workers here in BA to get us out for their international premier at the Buenos Aires International Film Festival.

The film was made over 12 years, and packs in a lot of ideas and information. It’s partly an homage to Dr John Sarno, one of the first medical doctors to treat chronic pain by addressing emotional factors. The title, All the Rage, refers to studies that show that people of lower socio-economic standing are more likely to experience chronic pain, and Dr Sarno suggests that they are furious with the way society has been constructed to treat them.

My biggest take away was the idea of “normal abnormalities.” Sarno’s examination process begins in the physical realm so he can rule out actual injury such as torn ligaments or fractures. At one point a patient brings him an x-ray to illustrate a previous diagnosis, and Sarno responds that it shows a “normal abnormality. Then the film explains many studies showing that such abnormalities are not directly correlated with pain, and that often people experience pain without any such accompanying abnormalities. Sarno says that unrecognized emotions cause muscular tension resulting in pain which goes away when the emotions are acknowledged.

I once went to a chiropractor about a cervical vertebra I thought protruded too much. Honestly I just didn’t like the way it looked. I was required to bring a full spinal X-ray and then at my first exam he showed me all sorts of problems throughout the length of my spine, including several subluxated (misaligned) vertebrae. He said I would need months of treatment. None of my subluxations had caused me pain or hindered my movement in any way I’m aware of. I didn’t continue treatment.

None of us is a model human figure of textbook-aligned bones, fully mobile joints, optimally flexible and strong muscles attached to stable and perfectly proportioned tendons and ligaments. And what we don’t know doesn’t necessarily hurt us.

What if we didn’t have an ideal in mind to compare ourselves to, and instead we experienced symptoms as signals that prompt us to change our behaviors? What if we think the same way about our mental and emotional health? How would we talk about our symptoms if there were no agreed upon labels for our conditions?