The Neurophysiologic Disorder (NPD) describes the body’s memorized response to stress and also what occurs when your body has sustained elevated levels of adrenaline, cortisol and histamines. There are many symptoms that disappear with the successful treatment of NPD. Most of them are physical. The most difficult concept for many patients to grasp is that since the symptoms are physical then there must be some structural source. It does not matter how many different ways I explain it or how many negative tests that have been done. They just will not believe that physical symptoms can be generated from the brain. YOUR BRAIN IS CONNECTED TO EVERY ONE OF THE 50 TRILLION CELLS IN YOUR BODY either chemically or by nerves. The only way that physical sensations can be experienced is by being processed and interpreted in your brain.
The “Pain Switch”
Then he or she proceeds to explain to me in detail that since they can push on a certain spot and feel the pain, then how can it be in their brain? How can it not be there? The fact that a simple push can elicit pain means that the threshold for stimulating those pain fibers has been lowered – often dramatically. Your pain switch is either on or off. The only place these switches exist is in the brain.
Water Torture versus a Rock
Do you think that the pain felt during water torture is imaginary? It is a simple, painless drop of water. There is no reason it should ever cause pain. If water constantly drips on a rock does that cause pain? In fact over years, decades, or centuries the rock will be eroded by the simple repetition of dripping. Why is there not pain in that scenario? Obviously a rock has no nervous system. Repetition of any activity lays down circuits that are repeatable and become efficient? It is true for musicians, artists, and athletes, and also true for the perception of pain.
Obsessive Thought Patterns
Unfortunately, it is also true for the thought, “My doctor is missing something because I am in pain.” I am repeatedly told that I just don’t understand how they feel. That set of thoughts becomes it’s own set of repeatable circuits that will not shut down. Logic alone will not break them up. I honestly do not know what will break them up. The reason why it is such an unfortunate situation is that it also blocks treatment. The one variable that predicts success or failure in treating NPD (Neurophysiologic Disoder) is willingness to engage in the tools. Neurophysiological Disorder – “Short Circuits”
My Weekly Battle
I was reminded of the problem again several times every week. I had a middle-aged woman who had not really engaged in the DOC project. She had experienced anxiety (another NPD symptom) since she was a teen along with chronic LBP. She had ruptured a disc in her back six months earlier and was experiencing screaming leg pain. She did have a large ruptured disc. When I explained the neurological nature of chronic pain, it was an ugly conversation. I asked her to come back when she calmed down. I was surprised that she returned the next week. On the second visit I told her that I seldom operate anymore unless the chronic pain is being actively addressed. That means that the patient is actively reading, writing, learning, and generally taking full responsibility for their care. However this disc was so large that I felt that I had to take it out first. She swore that she would engage.
Guess what? The simple disc excision that took away all of her leg pain, as expected, did not relieve any of her LBP. In spite of at least 10 direct conversations before and after the surgery, I could not convince her that her LBP was coming from the soft tissues around her spine and that spine surgery rarely helps LBP. It is a rehab issue. She was convinced that there was something causing her pain that I was missing.
Doctors do not like to miss anything. We are extremely aware, even paranoid, of overlooking a problem that can and should be fixed. It is one of the reasons why health care costs are so high. We will often order testing when we know that the chance of it being positive is less than one in a thousand.
I did not get through. She thought if we could “fix it” her pain would disappear and her anxiety around it would diminish. I don’t think she will ever engage in any structured rehab program. The tragedy is that both are easily treatable with usual outcome to be pain free with minimal anxiety. The general wisdom in surgery is that if a patient has had the surgical risks explained to them then they must be in enough pain to undergo the operation. What the surgeons don’t understand (historically including me) is that the decision-making has become irrational.
The success of a spine fusion for LBP is less than 30%. (1,2) When the surgery has failed then the surgeon “has done their part” and sends them on their way – to where??
I will never perform surgery unless I can see the exact source of the pain. Even then, I will rarely perform it in the face of chronic pain unless the patient is experiencing a full nights sleep for at least six weeks and actively engaging in the tools that allow the nervous system to remodel. I feel in very case that surgery is only about a third of the solution. Physical conditioning and healing the nervous system are the other two thirds of the picture.
Personal and Societal Costs
I don’t regret performing her surgery, as it was necessary from a perspective of the need to relieve her severe discomfort. I am sad and frustrated that only a fraction of the benefit will be realized. Not only is the suffering of these trapped patients not solved, they are also costing the rest of society untold billions dollars with the relentless pursuit of an answer that does not exist. Obsessive thought patterns, which is one of the NPD symptoms, both exacerbates pain and blocks effective treatment.
- Franklin, GM et al. “Outcome of lumbar fusion in Washington State Workers’ Compensation.” Spine(1994); 19: 1897 – 1903.
- Nguyen, TH et al. “Long-term outcomes of lumbar fusion among worker’s compensation subjects.” Spine (2010); 20: 1– 11.