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Debunking the 17th Century Theory of the Mind & Body

By Marie Pham



In the 17th century, Descartes came up with an idea that the mind and body were separate, and that the amount of pain was in proportion to the amount of tissue damage. If there was persistent pain without clear physical causes, then people were stigmatised for it being “all in their head”.


Since then there has been an overwhelming amount of research and scientific evidence to debunk a 17th century theory. However, it’s been difficult to shake this myth and we see this play out in people’s experiences with their pain that doesn’t respond as “expected” to a procedure, or a manual therapy technique. Often it escalates to more procedures and trying another physiotherapist / osteopath / chiropractor / acupuncturist in the hope for a cure for their symptoms.


Sometimes it takes years before the realisation sinks in that there has been no real change in their pain or capacity. Chasing for the pain cure ignores that pain is not complex and a product of both mind and body leading to a their life getting smaller.


We now understand pain as a result of all the processes that are integrated with the mind and body and it means that we are treating the person and not just the pain. This means we care about someone’s psychological well being, which includes their experiences, emotions, thoughts and feelings, their interaction with their communities, family and friends, and previous history with their early learning up to their current point in life. We also examine what they want and need in the future including how they want to grow as a person. Within this we bring confidence back with their bodies, movement and engagement in activities.


Taking the stigma out of managing your psychological health is a big part of finding a way forward with managing persistent pain. Changing the way you view your pain can help open new opportunities to make your world a little bit bigger and get back the bits that you have lost along the way. This might be hard as it means doing something you might not feel motivated with and pushing forward.


It also means pushing into pain and understanding your limits and what you can do without having suffered greater than what can be gained.

It can be starting to build a small routine and adding a habit at a time to rebuild back a life that would be meaningful to you. It’s understanding that although the journey might take time and can be filled with wins and setbacks, they are all decisions leading you back to who you want to be.


It’s focusing on connecting back to the people that matter to you to help with emotional and psychological well being. Having tough and honest conversations and letting loved ones in when you have been isolating to keep yourself safe. It’s rebuilding your physical self up and being okay with lifting a 500 gram weight and only walking for 2 minutes at a time, while still coping with the pain.


In treating the person and not pain, you start to gain back bits that you have lost along the way and start to live a more meaningful life again. It might look a little different to what it was before the injury but it can still be fulfilling and get you back to what it’s important.

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