Is the Pain Really ‘Just in Your Head’?

April 9, 2012 2:02 am Last Updated: April 8, 2013 8:54 pm

As a psychiatrist, I have seen patients who make their doctors feel helpless. They complain of a series of nonspecific symptoms such as pervasive pain, headaches, dizziness and vertigo, fatigue, digestive disturbances, elimination problems (urinary and bowel function), and the like.

Doctors often end up telling their patients with these chronic complaints that they can’t do anything more for them and suggest that they see a psychiatrist for hypochondria. 

When these kinds of patients come to see me for treatment, they will usually tell me that everyone thinks their symptoms are all in their head. You can imagine how they feel about this—sad, angry, defeated, and often hopeless.

Many of these patients have experienced some sort of trauma in their past. They may have suffered from neglect and abuse (emotional, physical, or sexual). They have gone through life feeling violated and invalidated by others. When even their doctors cannot validate their suffering, they lose hope and often have suicidal thoughts.

One of my patients came to see me with complaints of neck, shoulder, and back pain, severe fatigue, dizziness, insomnia, IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), and suicidal thoughts. She suffered from this pain for over 10 years after she experienced an injury while working. 

 She said she came to me because I am an acupuncture practitioner in addition to being a psychiatrist. She had been taking pain medication for years, but it stopped working. She was hoping I could help her get out of pain. She came to me as her last hope. 

She chose not to talk about her past and only told me she had experienced some negative events during her childhood. She said she just wanted me to treat her pain, fatigue, and insomnia with acupuncture.

I did what she asked me to do. Ideally, one should come daily for acupuncture (which is the custom in China) or at least two to three times a week. But she could only come once a week. She had never had acupuncture before.

She responded very well to acupuncture. Before the treatment, she could hardly move her arm above her ears. Within a few weeks, she could lift her arm more freely. Gradually, her fatigue subsided, and her sleep improved. 

She told me that she had not felt this well for many years. This is a common response patients experience after receiving acupuncture treatments. Not only do they experience symptom relief, but also feel varying degrees of improvement in their sense of well-being. In other words, they simply feel better and happier.

As I continued treating this woman, she started being able to do more housework and had the energy and motivation to go out for dinner, a walk, a bike ride—to have fun.

One day, the patient informed me that she had to move out of state because of her husband’s work. During our last session, as she lay on the acupuncture bed, we chatted about her upcoming move, and suddenly she started to tell me about her past.

Her father was addicted to alcohol and was physically abusive to her mother and her brother. He was also abusive to her but to a much lesser extent. One of her experiences was watching, helpless and in horror, as her father dumped hot water over her brother’s head.

When they were older, her brother joined the Army and went to fight in the Vietnam War. He suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, became an alcoholic, and eventually died in his early 40s, perhaps of suicide.

She cried as she told me her story and told me how she appreciated my help. The acupuncture greatly alleviated her pain and other symptoms.  

Because I agreed to treat her through acupuncture instead of psychiatry, I validated her pain and didn’t make her feel as though her pain was all in her head. Acupuncture was an important tool I used to help her.

Dr. Fang is a board-certified psychiatrist and doctor of Chinese medicine. She works for The Tao Institute. Read more about her at http://taoinstitute.com/team/fang.php