Chronic Pain and Your Perception of Injustice

My life changed the day I realised that my 5 years of chronic pain and back issues were not being caused by a whiplash injury at 19.

The story I had been telling myself since that accident; the blame directed against the person at fault, the disappointing deterioration to my ski-paddling though I was training as hard as the rest of the crew, the money I spent chasing remedies, the paltry reimbursement from the SGIC (third party insurance) for my 5 years as a victim, the destruction of a dream to travel around the world, free as a bird… and I’m sure there were others to blame. Everyone except myself.

It’s My Fault… This Back Pain

It wasn’t until I stumbled upon a teacher of Alexander technique that I realised the previously unrealiseable. It was me!

I am creating tension in my body, all day…unconsciously, surrepticiously as I get out of bed, creak to the bathroom, brush my teeth and perform the daily rituals…as I get showered, dry myself, get dressed, begrudgingly put on my shoes, make a coffee, eat my cereal and drag my attitude to work…only to be dozing off to sleep on the way to my first appointment, at 9am. As I sneak a 30 minute sleep during my lunch break in the car seat, too exhausted and demoralised to be doing anything else.

Unable to stand up for more than 15 minutes at the pub before searching out a chair to slump into, nobody understands why I’m so depressed.

Pain free in the gym and on my ski… the rest of my life is dragging me into the ground.

The physios tell me the same story no matter who I consult, the chiros are just content on seeing me again next week and the attempt to get more flexible at Aikido is just cluttering my life up with more things to do. To no avail.

Hanging upside down each night is the single thing I can do to get relief. It’s my bliss time when I don’t have to explain anything to anyone, just hang.

But it’s not enough, I’m too young to be a prisoner in my body…this isn’t fair, why me?

I’m only 23. Why did that guy run a stop sign, was it because I was speeding a bit? Should I have been wearing my seatbelt? Lucky I wasn’t. The door would have wrapped around me rather than lurching me across the bench seat. I’m fit, strong… willing to do anything to fix this back of mine, somebody just TELL ME WHAT TO DO.

And then I learned what not to do.

Stop compressing the spine within every movement, stop holding the breath, stop applying so much effort for the smallest of tasks, stop blaming anything outside myself and start looking inward.

The answers were all right there for me to see only I was blinded by the disempowerment, gutted at the loss of freedom.

There’s Science to Support This

A growing body of scientific evidence links perceived injustice with pain. What we think about the accident or the event that is apportioned the blame for pain has a big effect on how indelibly it is carved into our life. See “The role of perceived injustice in chronic pain

The story we are telling ourself has a direct affect on our problems. Research suggests that anger, while being the most likely feeling related to perceived injustice, is associated with “more negative pain outcomes.”

Try telling the person to calm down that believes in their nuggets that the whiplash they experienced 36 years ago is still causing them pain now.

Learning how to change my coordination and balance so as to stop creating tension gave me not only relief but a completely different story to tell. Instead of pointing the finger outward I began pointing it inward. Whilst skeptical at first and still attached to my story, I was willing to try anything for a change…and change I did.

I Can Solve Back Pain Now

17 years on, now teaching others how to realise their choices in movement (and thought) I’ve found that hope is my favourite part of the experience working with a new person. Breaking the news to them that every single thing they are currently doing (from pilates, yoga, chiro, physio, stretching, to medications et al.) is remedial, gives me the sweetest pleasure. Watching their skepticism and disbelief turn to intrigue and then hope takes me back to my own life transformation at the hands of an Alexander technique teacher.

That patient man who quietly guided me in and out of a chair, encouraged my body to let go, open and lengthen while allowing me to discover the beauty and poise that my body had laboured underneath my story for so long.

Is it called Fibromyalgia? Or Chronic Fatigue? Or Whiplash? Is there some other new name that I haven’t heard about yet?

If it has a name, you’re in trouble. It means your story of blame, negativity and disempowerment has validity. It means you’re less likely to let go of your story as other people, professionals no less, are agreeing with you.

As a physio commenter to the above article observes, in the 15 years of his clinical practice he’s “yet to see a person at fault”. But he admits that to broach the “victimization” mentality is a minefield most practitioners will avoid due to lack of skill navigating the emotional triggers.

Some interesting reading from very recent science on this subject can be found via the following sources kindly referenced by Whitney Scott at

McParland J, Hezseltine L, Serpell M, Eccleston C, & Stenner P (2011). An investigation of constructions of justice and injustice in chronic pain: a Q-methodology approach. J Health Psychol, 16 (6), 873-83 PMID:21430131 

Scott W, Trost Z, Bernier E, & Sullivan MJ (2013). Anger differentially mediates the relationship between perceived injustice and chronic pain outcomes. Pain, 154 (9), 1691-8 PMID: 23707294

Sullivan MJ, Adams H, Horan S, Maher D, Boland D, & Gross R (2008). The role of perceived injustice in the experience of chronic pain and disability: scale development and validation. J Occup Rehabil, 18 (3), 249-61 PMID:18536983

Sullivan MJ, Scott W, & Trost Z (2012). Perceived injustice: a risk factor for problematic pain outcomes. The Clinical journal of pain, 28 (6), 484-8 PMID: 22673480

Trost Z, Scott W, Lange J, Manganelli L, Bernier E, Sullivan M. (2013) An experimental investigation of the effect of a justice violation on pain experience and expression among individuals with high and low just world beliefs. Eur J Pain.




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