By Mary Ruth Velicki [bio]
I was working as a physical therapist specializing in the rehabilitation of adults with neurological disorders when chronic pelvic pain pulled me out of my regular life. My primary physical symptoms were bladder pain and inflammation, pelvic floor myopathy, and a nervous system that seemed to be in overdrive. For over five years, I addressed each of these areas simultaneously, curbing my skepticism and using treatments from Western, Eastern, and alternative sides of medicine.
Early in my illness I began to suspect that the neural connections through my spinal cord were creating a feedback loop between my bladder, nervous system, and the pelvic floor muscles, because all three of these areas required attention before I began to feel some relief. It also occurred to me that the sacral spinal-cord segments can be activated from the brain itself. I wondered whether that was the anatomical reason for why spinning thoughts and turbulent emotions could ramp up my pain and for why I needed to work at the mental and emotional levels as well as the physical to attain long-lasting relief.
Of course, this is a simplistic explanation. Many parts of the nervous system are involved in pain transmission, and with prolonged pain, these neural-pain pathways can become more prominent and easily excited. However, it gave me hope to consider that the whole nervous system is wired together and that many connections can influence whether pain pathways are activated.
I began to appreciate that when I was under stress, my pain often increased, and when I was really calm, I could sometimes get the pain levels to drop. When I focused my mind on activities like progressive relaxation of my muscles, mindfulness meditation, diaphragmatic breathing, and the movement of the body and breath during yoga class, my nervous system often calmed down and my pain levels dropped.
Two years into my illness, I began working diligently with a psychotherapist. As I gradually became aware of my subconscious thoughts, emotions, beliefs, and behaviors, I could alter them in positive directions. This work also seemed to calm the unconscious, automatic reactions in my body, which were often triggered by my life experiences.
Over the years, I had many direct experiences of the link between my thoughts and emotions, the activation of my nervous system, and the structure of my body. One of the most surprising of these incidences happened during an alternative type of bodywork called CranioSacral therapy. As my body received light physical pressures in a relaxed meditative state, memories and emotions surfaced. On several occasions, this awareness was accompanied by a “stress response” in my body, which was similar every time. My calf muscles contracted, my buttocks and pelvic floor tightened, and my eyes squinted shut. Sometimes, I felt pain in my bladder or a crinkling sensation at the base of my brain. I suspect this had been my body’s subtle response to stress for much of my life, and it became exaggerated and dominant during my years of pelvic pain.
I thought it was interesting that the muscles that were activated are literally part of the fight/flight response. In addition, on several occasions, at the moment I became aware of an underlying belief or pattern in my life, my pelvic floor and calves immediately relaxed. These experiences made me suspect that my nervous system was directly affecting the muscle tone and posture of my body, and when my mind got the message that the trauma was over and no longer felt threatened, the automatic stress response in my body was no longer activated.
Almost five years after the pain began, suppressed memories of childhood sexual abuse surfaced. It became clear to me how these experiences had changed my underlying beliefs, ramped up my nervous system, altered the structure of my body, and contributed to my pain.
I am now pain-free on most days without medications, my muscle tone and posture have gradually shifted, and my internal and external life have both transformed in dramatic and positive ways. Now I appreciate that my pelvic pain was not just a sign that my body was breaking down; it was also a signal that it was time to open up and heal at all levels of my being.
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Mary Ruth Velicki, MS, DPT, is the author of, Healing Through Chronic Pain. A Physical Therapist’s Personal Journey of Body, Mind, Spirit Transformation. In this memoir, Mary Ruth recounts her five-year journey to recover from debilitating pelvic pain and shares the treatment strategies she used and the support she received from a team of professionals. Mary Ruth has been a physical therapist for thirty years specializing in the rehabilitation of adults with neurological disorders. She spent eight years developing and teaching graduate courses for several universities, and she has published research in the journal Experimental Brain Research. She now spends her time writing, speaking, and working with clients combining her physical therapy background with the holistic bodywork that helped her to heal.