How Labels Influence the Way You Feel & the Way You Heal

We are what we think.  All that we are arises with our thoughts.  With our thoughts, we make the world. The Buddha (c.563-483 B.C.)

“I am done with cyclocross racing.  I’ll just have to stick with road I guess.”

“Why?”  I ask.

“My knee.”

“What about your knee?”

“I have arthritis.”

Did you know that just the word – arthritis – could limit your ability to heal?

Arthritis – you’ve got arthritis. The word alone conjures up crippling pain and disability that can influence how you heal. You may remember your grandmother’s swollen, gnarled hands or the grimace on her face when she climbed the porch steps. You may have visions of her constantly rubbing her sore knees. You knew Gram had arthritis. So when the doctor looks at your x-ray and says you have arthritis, the very word makes you hurt more. And the mention of it may alter your ability to recover.

The same is true for a host of maladies. Culture dictates to a great extent how our bodies are affected by an illness. Neuroscientist Mario Martinez looked at the very powerful influence of culture and words on our health. Peruvian women were studied during menopause. They had, as a group, more complaints and symptoms than did women in other cultures. Their inflammatory markers were elevated, indicating immune systems that were working overtime. The Peruvian word for hot flash  –  “the shame”.

Contrast this with Japanese women who generally transition through menopause without symptoms, and without increased inflammatory markers. The Japanese words for menopause are “a second spring”. Menopause is viewed positively; it’s a time to join the revered elders in the community. This positive outlook in the culture is reflected in a healthier physical response to menopause.

Back to arthritis. Even if the story is not a personal one, arthritis has it’s own ethos in our society. The general feeling is that 1) it will get worse over time and 2) there is nothing you can do about it. When an x-ray shows abnormalities, it can give substance to your pain and decrease your self-perception of health. Then if, out of fear, you avoid moving, you predispose yourself to continued pain.

Among a large group of subjects 60 years and older, MRIs showed that 30% had herniated discs, 21% had spinal stenosis and 90% had degenerated or bulging discs. Yet none on them had back pain. The association between MRI findings and symptoms is tenuous at best. Because an MRI or X-ray looks bad does not mean you are destined to keep hurting. If you look closely enough at almost any joint in the body, you will find something wrong with it. Don’t assume that whatever shows up on the MRI is the source of your pain.

Perceptions, both cultural and personal, influence how our bodies work. The influence is often under the radar of conscious thought, but can set off alarms that derail physical improvement. Yes, pay attention to pain and seek out diagnostic tests, if recommended. But remember, you are not your X-ray or MRI. You have a host of wonderful options to help you get better, and knowing it’s possible to be pain free is a huge step towards recovery.

A solution is waiting for you…

One Response to How Words Hurt

  • JUDITH

    NICE POSITIVE MESSAGE FOR THOSE OF US WITH “STUFF”. AND I THINK THAT YOU ARE TOTALLY RIGHT ABOUT THE MIND BODY CONNECTION.
    THANKS
    JUDITH

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