There is a deadly diagnosis that has evolved and become increasingly embedded in chronic pain terminology – Medically Unexplained Symptoms (MUS). (1) It means that you are suffering with symptoms, but we physicians don’t know the cause. Therefore, the solution is unclear, and you are going to have to do the best that you can while living with them. BTW, we won’t be investigating the cause further–the diagnosis is like a sealed container, and you’ll probably be suffering with these symptoms indefinitely.
As a surgeon who has spent a lifetime dealing with patients with chronic pain, including me, have come to see that the MUS diagnosis is wholly inaccurate and should be immediately discarded. Every bodily symptom you experience results from an identifiable structural problem or from your body’s physiological response to your surroundings. Symptoms don’t just happen. The correct diagnosis is MES (Medically Explained Symptoms).
Physiology is the term that describes how the body functions. We stay alive because living creatures can maintain an incredibly delicate balance of the body’s acid/ base balance, electrolytes, blood pressure, temperature, heart rate, and the list is long. It is a dynamic process that changes by the second in response to input from your surroundings.
We require safety (rest and relaxation) to regenerate and build up our reserves. When we are under any stress (threat), the body responds with elevated activity in multiple different organ systems to increase the chances of survival. Fuel stores are depleted, and reserves are lowered as energy is shunted to muscles in the event of fast action is required.
Our bodies are intended to be mostly in “neutral” or what is called homeostasis. When you are going about your daily business without noticing how you are feeling, you are in homeostasis. It can be maintained for long periods of time because reserves are being replenished commensurate with your needs.
Any time your body is under any kind of mental or physical threat, your body’s physiology will react in a manner to bring you back into balance. There are three contributors of this scenario 1) your circumstances (input) 2) the state of your nervous system (coping capacity) 3) output (body’s total neurochemical response).
By definition, anytime your senses any level of danger from any source, you are under threat – even if it lasts for just a few seconds. When you are in homeostasis, your body responds so quickly, you won’t notice the changes. However, when the threats begin to overwhelm your nervous system’s coping capacity, you’ll experience unpleasant symptoms.
The threats can be mental or physical and there are almost always multiple physical and mental responses. The physiological manifestations include:
- Changes in your immune system with increased inflammation.
- Your body’s metabolism (the rate you burn fuel). You are either storing fuel (anabolic state) or consuming it (catabolic state).
- Nervous system activity – you are designed to become more sensitized and alert when there is potential danger.
These are broad categories of the effects of threat. But, since there are so many organ systems required to keep you alive, numerous physical and mental symptoms are created. Every symptom that is not from an obvious anatomical problem is a result of this interaction of your body responding to sensory input from your surroundings that is interpreted as potentially dangerous. How else could you stay alive?
Examples of physical threats include viruses, bacteria, being attacked by a predator – human or animal, hunger, lack of shelter, poverty, lack of opportunity, being bullied at work or school, racism, authoritarianism, trapped in a difficult living or family situation, and physical maladies.
Mental threats are processed in a similar manner as physical ones with the same physiological response. (2). They are more problematic in that humans have consciousness and many of our thoughts and emotions are unpleasant, and unlike visible threats like tigers or a severe storm, we cannot escape our thoughts. Repressed thoughts and emotions are even more impactable on your body’s neurochemical state. Many of our unpleasant thoughts are based on cognitive distortions or “stories” about our lives. Unfortunately, whether the threat is real or perceived it has the same deleterious effect.
Physiologically explained symptoms
Unpleasant sensory input progressively impacts your body at three levels.
- Illness/ Disease
When the threat is short-lived your response will be appropriate to the situation and quickly disappears when it has passed or resolved. Almost every internal and external action of your body is directing you in a manner, so you don’t feel unpleasant sensations. If you do sense danger, you are programmed to resolve it immediately. Examples are looking away from the sun, spitting out rancid food, pulling your bare foot back from hot pavement, frequently shifting in your chair to avoid skin breakdown, and avoiding an aggressive dog.
When threats are more prolonged, you will begin to suffer symptoms such as back pain, tension headaches, anxiety, poor appetite, nausea, urge to urinate, sexual dysfunction, burning sensations, skin rashes, dizziness, ringing in your ears, and insomnia. There are over 30 different physical symptoms that can occur. (3)
But when threats are sustained, you have a significant chance of becoming seriously ill or developing a disease. It is well-documented that stress kills people and unfortunately the symptoms of a chronic illness also add to the threat load. This is particularly true in chronic pain. (4)
The nature of your body’s physiology under threat
Environmental cues of threat set off a defensive response. Immediately, before you are even aware, your immune system girds for the possibility of injury by initiating inflammation (to protect cells against bacterial or other invasion), elevates metabolism to provide fuel for defense, increases the speed of nerve conduction–which increases your alertness but also your pain sensitivity, and elevates the levels stress hormones (cortisol, adrenaline, noradrenaline, histamines). Much of this defensive state is modulated by small signaling proteins called inflammatory cytokines.
So how do you think you feel when you are in this physiological state? Your heart is racing, you are sweaty, tired, anxious, overwhelmed, nervous, stomach feels tight, blood pressure is elevated, pain is worse, and your breathing is rapid. The bottom line is that you don’t feel great when your body is in this heightened neurochemical state. Are these symptoms imaginary? Not a chance. None of them.
This is a list of some of the symptoms and illnesses that are connected with your body’s physiology being in a prolonged heightened state:
- Irritable Bowel syndrome
- Autoimmune diseases
- Ankylosing spondylitis
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Coronary artery disease
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Parkinson’s disease
- Liver disease
- Irritable Bladder syndrome (interstitial nephritis)
- Migratory skin rashes
- Burning sensations
- Migraine headaches
- Neck, thoracic, and low back pain
- Early death
- Chronic fatigue
There is a wide range of “Medically Unexplained Symptoms/ Illnesses/ Diseases” that are created by your body’s survival response. Dr. Stephen Porges has eloquently explained how the autonomic nervous system through the vagus nerve, modulates these various physiological states. (5)
Why is MUS such a deadly diagnosis?
The worst aspect of the diagnosis of MUS is that it creates despair; it takes away hope. Research has shown that hope, optimism, and a sense of purpose are anti-inflammatory and allow your body to regenerate. (6) So, the diagnosis itself is inflammatory and adds to threat. Do not accept it at any level. The correct diagnosis is MES.
Any major reason MUS is so damaging is that many physicians assume it is untreatable, there is nothing more that can be done, and refer you to a psychologist for any number of reasons that most of you are familiar with. “It is in your head.” You don’t have much of a pain tolerance.” “You are just looking for drugs.” You have “secondary gain issues and don’t really want to work.” The labels keep piling on and none of them are helpful to your healing and they are just wrong. But MUS has a certain finality to it, and it is crushing. It is tragic because physicians have not been taught the link between mental/ physical threats to the physiological changes that cause physical symptoms. I feel the ultimate tragedy is that with the correct understanding, MES is one of the most treatable diagnoses with minimal costs and risks.
Beware of IES (Incorrectly Explained Symptoms)
When there is an obvious anatomical abnormality and the symptoms exactly match the lesion, that would be considered a structural identifiable source of pain. An example would be a painful inflamed tooth. It is a straightforward process to diagnose it by testing with hot and cold or pressure. A root canal or pulling the tool will quickly solve the problem.
But this discussion is complicated by the fact that there is an emphasis in modern medicine to explain reasons for pain from a structural problem when the anatomical abnormality is not actually the cause of it. Many symptoms are attributed to normally aging anatomy and the cause and effect are not supported by medical research.
For example, pain is commonly attributed to scoliosis and there has never been a research paper documenting that it even contributes to back pain unless the deformity is severe and unbalanced (your head is not directly center over your pelvis).
Degenerative disc disease, bone spurs, arthritis, ruptured discs, bulging disc, and spinal arthritis have all been documented in multiple research papers that none of these “diagnoses” are the cause of chronic neck or back pain. (7)
There is marked debate about small tears of the structures around the hip and shoulder. Even severe hip, knee, and shoulder bone-on-bone arthritis has little correlation with pain. There is actually more of a relationsip to stress. (8)
How can you figure this out?
First, it is always important to undergo a medical workup to make sure there is not a structural issue such as vascular disease, pinched nerve, tumor, or an infection.
Second, regardless of the findings of the workup, maintaining your body’s metabolic, immune, and nervous system balance is important. If you require a procedure, your odds of a good outcome will be maximized.
There are many ways to accomplish this. The DOC Journey is one platform that presents proven medical treatments in a way that allows you learn and implement these strategies. All three aspects chronic illness must be addressed.
Output (stimulation of the body’s anti-inflammatory response)
- Breath work
- Mindfulness/ meditation
- Vagal stimulation
- Certain pitches of music
State of the nervous system (decreasing sensitivity and stimulating neuroplastic changes in your brain)
- ACT (Acceptance Commitment Therapy)
- Processing prior trauma
Input (what are you uploading into it and what are you holding onto?)
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
- Expressive writing
- Never discussing your pain or medical care
What really does not work is just “coping”, which is what most of us have been taught to do. It requires specific approaches and tools to effectively create the desired changes. Regardless of what approach you use, the key is to learn how to utilize these tools to consistently process threat in way to keep you in homeostasis or a state of safety.
Finally, you must commit to taking charge of your own body and health. The first step is understanding the nature of chronic disease. The solutions lie in implementing strategies we already know are good for our health–healthy diet, sleep, regular exercise, taking time for yourself, process addictive behaviors, and nurturing close relationships. The common theme with all of these interventions is that they lower inflammation. Ongoing inflammation directly destroys tissues throughout your body. It sounds daunting but it is more doable than you think. Not taking control may have more severe consequences than you can imagine.
Chronic pain is one of the MUS diagnoses. It is one that is particularly untrue. By understanding the nature of chronic mental/physical pain and the principles behind the solutions, it is a Medically Explained Symptom (MES) and a consistently solvable problem.
MUS must go!
- Edwards T M, Stern A, Clarke DD, Ivbijaro G, & Kasney LM. (2010). The treatment of patients with medically unexplained symptoms in primary care: A review of the literature. Mental Health and Family Medicine, 7, 209–221.
- Eisenberger NI, et al. An experimental study of shared sensitivity to physical pain and social rejection. Pain (2006);126:132-138.
- Schubiner H and M Betzold. Unlearn Your Pain, 3rdMind Body Publishing, Pleasant Ridge, MI, 2016.
- Smyth J, et al. Stress and disease: A structural and functional analysis. Social and Personality Psychology Compass (2013);7/4:217-227. 10.1111/spc3.12020
- Porges Stephen. The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory: The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe. Norton and Co, New York, NY, 2017.
- Dantzer R, et al. Resilience and Immunity. Brain Behav Immun (2018);74:28-42. Doi.10.1016.j.bbi2018.08.010
- Jarvik JG, et al. Three-Year Incidence of Low Back in an Initially Asymptomatic Cohort. Spine (2005); 30:1541-1548.
- Wise BL, et al. Psychological factors, and their relation to osteoarthritis pain. Osteoarthritis and Cartilage (2010);18:883-887.