Psychotherapist Alan Gordon, LCSW was in grad school the first time he was hit with chronic back pain and debilitating headaches. “I went the traditional route where I met with doctors,” he describes to First for Women. “I got MRIs. I think I must have done 250 physical therapy appointments over two or three years. I got acupuncture, I did acupressure, I was doing Reiki.”
However, nothing was working, and Gordon realized that there were millions of people like him not finding long-term relief from conventional treatment options. It was this experience that led him to eventually create a new way to handle chronic pain called Pain Reprocessing Therapy (PRT), which he outlines in his new book co-written with neuroscientist, Alon Ziv, The Way Out: A Revolutionary, Scientifically Proven Approach to Healing Chronic Pain (Buy on Amazon, $22.70).
PRT came about as Gordon continued to explore treatment options for himself and began focusing on something called the neural pathway component to pain — that is, the neurological and psychological connection between our brains and our bodies that causes us to feel sensations like pain. The idea isn’t that pain is solely “all in our head,” Gordon explains, but that there may be more to the physical aches we feel that just localized discomfort. This concept, however, is incredibly counterintuitive to what we know. “We’re evolutionarily wired to associate physical pain with physical injury or physical damage,” he says. “The system is set up to reinforce the idea that pain is only due to structural damage to the body.”
Without taking into account that mind-body aspect though, it’s hard to make lasting changes. Gordon’s own epiphany came from a simple experiment: “I stopped being afraid of the pain, and two weeks later, it went away,” he explains. That was the basic idea for what eventually became PRT, which retrains neural pathways to better understand pain and not to misfire when there’s nothing actually wrong with the body. In other words, it helps your brain slowly realize that it’s making a mistake when it shoots off a rogue pain signal.
While that may sound simplistic, Gordon’s quick to point out that he has research to back him up. In a randomized controlled study in conjunction with the University of Colorado Boulder, he says 66 percent of participants who received Pain Reprocessing Therapy twice per week for one month were either pain-free or nearly pain-free by the end of the trial; these patients were suffering from 11 years of back pain on average heading into the study. Additionally, 98 percent of those involved saw at least some improvement in their pain.
Though PRT has worked for him and thousands of his patients at his Pain Psychology Center, he says that every chronic pain journey is different, and his book underscores that people should take a holistic approach to figure out what works best for them. “We lay out a variety of techniques [in the book], and we teach patients how to integrate them,” he explains. “It’s just a matter of determining as you go through the process works for you.”