One afternoon, when I was a young mom with a toddler and an infant just a few weeks old, my right hand started to tingle as I put away laundry. I tried to put it out of my mind, but the tingling persisted throughout the day.
Days went by, and the more attention I paid the tingling — and the more I began to worry about its possible nefarious cause — the more relentless the sensation became. After a week or so, the tingling began to spread. I now felt it in my right foot.
Before long, it wasn’t just tingling. Dramatic, embarrassing muscle twitches leaped up under my skin like plucked, reverberating piano strings. Sometimes, electrical zaps shot down my legs. And, worst of all, I began to experience a deep, dull muscle pain in all of my limbs that came and went as unpredictably as my baby’s nap schedule.
As my symptoms progressed, I started to panic. My lifelong hypochondria bloomed into something more focused and militant — something less like concern and more like obsession. I scoured the internet for answers to what might be causing this strange series of physical events. Was it multiple sclerosis? Or could it be ALS?
Large portions of my day, and my mental energy, became devoted to riddling through potential causes for these weird physical issues.
Of course, I also visited my doctor. On his recommendation, I dutifully made an appointment with a neurologist, who had no explanations for me and sent me to a rheumatologist. The rheumatologist spent 3 minutes with me before declaring definitively that whatever I had, it wasn’t in his scope of practice.
Meanwhile, my pain continued, unabated, with no explanations. The many blood tests, scans, and procedures came back normal. In total, I ended up visiting nine practitioners, none of whom could determine a cause for my symptoms — and none of whom seemed inclined to put much effort into the task.
Finally, my nurse practitioner told me that, in the absence of conclusive evidence, she would call my symptoms fibromyalgia. She sent me home with a prescription for a drug commonly used to treat the condition.
I left the exam room devastated, but not quite willing to believe this diagnosis. I had read about the signs, symptoms, and causes of fibromyalgia, and this condition simply didn’t ring true to my experience.
Deep down, I had begun to feel that though my symptoms were intensely physical, perhaps their origin was not. After all, I wasn’t blind to the fact that every test result indicated I was a “healthy” young woman.
My internet research had led me to discover the lesser-known world of mind-body medicine. I now suspected that the issue behind my strange, locomotive pain might be my own emotions.
It wasn’t lost on me, for example, that my very obsession with my symptoms seemed to fuel their fire, and that they had begun during a period of enormous stress. Not only was I caring for two kids on next to no sleep, I had forfeited a promising career to do so.
Plus, I knew there were lingering emotional issues from my past I’d swept under the rug for years.
The idea that negative emotions can cause physical symptoms isn’t just woo-woo. Numerous
It’s puzzling and troubling that, for all my doctors’ emphasis on evidence-based medicine, none of them ever suggested this connection. If only they had, I might have been saved months of pain and anguish — and I’m quite sure I wouldn’t have ended up with the aversion to doctors that plagues me to this day.
When I started paying attention to my emotions in relationship to my pain, patterns appeared. Though I rarely experienced episodes of pain in the midst of a highly stressful situation, I’d often feel the repercussions the next day. Sometimes, just the anticipation of something unpleasant or anxiety-producing was enough to prompt pangs in my arms and legs.
I decided it was time to address my chronic pain from a mind-body standpoint, so I went to a therapist who helped me identify sources of stress and anger in my life. I journaled and meditated. I read every mental-meets-physical-health book I could get my hands on. And I talked back to my pain, telling it that it had no hold over me, that it wasn’t really physical, but emotional.
Gradually, as I used these tactics (and improved certain measures of my self-care), my symptoms began to recede.
I’m thankful to say that I’m free from pain 90 percent of the time. These days, when I do get a tell-tale pang, I can usually point to an emotional trigger.
I know it may sound improbable and bizarre, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that stress works in mysterious ways.
As I reflect on the 18 months of my life I spent chasing down medical answers, I see how that time served as an important education.
Though I felt routinely brushed off and passed around by medical providers, the lack of engagement turned me into my own advocate. It sent me diving all the more fervently into the search for answers that were true for me, regardless of whether they might have fit someone else.
Charting my own alternative course for health opened my mind to new avenues for healing and made me far more likely to trust my gut. I’m thankful for these lessons.
To my fellow medical mystery patients I say this: Keep searching. Hone your intuition. Don’t give up. When you become your own advocate, you may find you also become your own healer.
Sarah Garone, NDTR, is a nutritionist, freelance health writer, and food blogger. She lives with her husband and three children in Mesa, Arizona. Find her sharing down-to-earth health and nutrition info and (mostly) healthy recipes at A Love Letter to Food.