Pain Is My Wise Teacher

Pain Is My Wise Teacher

By: Dr. Karyn Shanks, Founder of The Center for Medicine and Healing Arts

Dr Karyn Shanks functional medicine The Center for Medicine and Healing Arts Uninvisible Pod

Pain is my wise teacher, but not my destiny.

When I was 50, I completely decompensated when surgery to repair a torn tendon in my shoulder left me exhausted, sick, and with such exquisite back and hip pain I struggled to walk. The simple bending and twisting of unloading dishes from the dishwasher or reaching for a book on the shelf—all my ordinary everyday activities—were excruciating.

How could shoulder surgery lead to all that?

It was one of the lowest periods of my life.

And the tipping point.

I was finally able to decode the puzzle of me and decades of mysterious problems.

Like so many of you, I know the smackdown of persistent pain and exhaustion. The deep sense of personal defeat to not see a way forward. And the despair of it … like my future capability—my dreams—had been hijacked.

I couldn’t understand why I injured so easily or cycled through bouts of fatigue and feeling sick with no obvious cause.

Over the years, I became a litany of disconnected diagnoses and failed strategies. I felt defective. Unlucky.

But I was stoic and always soldiered on. Sound familiar?

In my 30s, however, I began the journey of applying Functional Medicine principles to myself.

The nutrient-dense, irritant-free food and adrenal-energy support nutrients I flooded my body with, and vigilance to other aspects of foundational self-care (for me, sleep, movement, meditation, and journaling practices were key) revived my energy and well-being. I mean, saved me.

And gave me the energy to stay curious, ask questions, and fight. To begin to look at my problems in new and more hopeful ways.

After shoulder surgery for yet another sidelining injury—this time a full thickness tear in my right supraspinatus, a key muscle for rotating the shoulder—I skidded into full despair when everything fell apart.

Not only did I lose function of my dominant right arm, but somehow couldn’t walk, stand, or feel good. What the hell was wrong with me?

It took the lowest point of my life to put the pieces together. My evolving bird’s-eye view and meticulous systems biology thinking helped me finally decode the puzzle of me.

And I healed.

What did I do?

Most critically, I stayed curious, didn’t give up, and fought like hell.

Some days I had to grasp at faith to trust the mystery of my healing, to trust that I would heal — though it hurt, was hard and lonely, and I couldn’t see the way forward.

Because I kept asking, gifted healers arrived. They reminded me of my potential to heal even in the face of overwhelming disability.

My renewed hope made me smarter.

Though I didn’t have classic symptoms of low blood pressure (lightheadedness and fainting), one day while at my lowest point two months after the fated shoulder surgery, I trusted an impulse to check my own blood pressure. Disabled by pain, fatigue, shortness of breath, nausea, and bizarre weakness, I thought, “what the hell” when I saw my husband’s blood pressure apparatus sitting on the table. I was shocked to see my blood pressure drop to a low of 60/30 while I was standing. How was I even alive?

That was a moment of triumph.

I could fix that.

I solved the low blood pressure problem with easy interventions and my energy quickly recovered. I was no longer ill. Note that in my experience as a physician treating people with similar issues, we have to try different approaches, and sometimes drugs may be called for. For me, the solution was carefully controlled hydration and herbal remedies. And with a giant gasp of ah-ha, I finally recognized hypermobility syndrome—genetically unique connective tissue that in the right circumstances leads to low blood pressure, frequent injuries, pain due to overstretched ligaments and tendons, and unstable joints.

I recalled how my surgeon had been amazed at my lax 50-year-old shoulder when examined under anesthesia, even commenting on it in his report. But he didn’t connect it to how poorly I felt after surgery, always shrugging at the mystery of my persistent symptoms. And they don’t check blood pressure in shoulder clinic.

I had to become my own doctor.

I gradually put a trusted team together to help me address my problems at the root cause level.

This included intensive rehab and strength training to stabilize my joints. It wasn’t enough to work hard and be strong as I’d done my whole life, I had to become strong in the right ways for joints that favored unstable positions.

I gradually trained myself to do things I’d come to fear. At first it was walking over uneven surfaces on my favorite trails (every step had been excruciating); now I lift heavy weights and leap over creeks with my dog.

Occasional acupuncture and daily electrolytes maintain my blood pressure. Series of prolotherapy and platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections were game-changers for healing ligaments and tendons, stabilizing joints, and eliminating pain. My smart chiropractor and physical therapist worked out kinks and encouraged me.

Over the course of two years, the pain resolved. While I continue to injure myself more easily than most, my pain responses are super sensitized, and I can cycle into feeling weak and wimpy due to low blood pressure … I know what to do.

I keep myself strong. I’m diligent with my self-care. I activate Team Karyn as needed. And I never, ever give up.

I’ve remained mostly pain-free and robustly strong to this day.

The keys to my healing.

I had to learn I wasn’t broken.

I wasn’t a laundry list of unfortunate problems.

I had to bust out of conventional medicine’s reductionistic paradigm that saw me as a series of disconnected problems and symptoms (and a pain in their ass!).

Rather, seen from a bird’s-eye view, my suffering all made sense.

I wasn’t a diagnosis.

I had to throw out the diagnoses because they didn’t represent me as the complex integrated whole I was.

Their over-simplification—seeing me as a series of disconnected tendon tears, ligament strains, bizarre pain, and bouts of fatigue—got in the way of me understanding the larger problem and, ultimately, my healing.

To this day, I refuse to call my hypermobility syndrome (unique connective tissue predisposing to low blood pressure, lax ligaments and tendons, and unstable joints, and for me, a spontaneous retina tear) “Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS)”  —though that’s what it is.

As the EDS diagnosis has become increasingly recognized, I’m happy for validation of people’s suffering. 

Problem is, mainstream recommendations for EDS therapy can needlessly terrify people and give them a bleak picture of what their futures can be … potentially keeping them stuck in immobility, pain, unneeded medications and surgeries, and dependency.

Naming things—especially when the problems are complex—and putting them into boxes of “understanding” and treatment protocols for the masses can be dangerous. It can lock us into a sense of certainty about what’s wrong and our potential outcomes (what will happen) and can hold us back from creative, individualized, effective healing approaches.

Had I let the published literature on EDS guide my approach to my treatment or set my expectations about future outcomes, I believe I would not have healed.

I wasn’t unlucky or a victim of a fixed genetic lottery.

To heal, I had to throw out the cultural narrative that tells us our genes determine our fixed destiny. I had to claim responsibility for what I personally needed to do to heal.

Packed with healing potential, I had to decode my unique genetic-environment-lifestyle relationships, guided by the language of my body.

I wasn’t stuck in pain and exhaustion.

I had to activate my healing potential through how I thought, how I talked to myself (our words are so powerful!), and through how I cared for my body.

I had to strike the disempowering story of stuck from my vocabulary.

The science of hope.

I welcomed a whole new paradigm of healing based on 21st century science that I call The Science of Directable Human Potential—epigenetics, neuroplasticity, core Functional Medicine systems biology, and positive body-mind-spirit psychology.

This science tells us we’re Unbroken.

Not sitting ducks to our locked-in genetic circumstances. Not needing to be “fixed” or “rescued” by the experts.

But, rather, we’re already whole, complete, and innately wise just as we are.

Only needing to decode the exquisite language of our bodies and what they can teach us about ourselves, our unique relationships to everything around and in us, and what we need to thrive.

This transformational science has become my life’s work.

I want you to access your own personal transformation and healing like I did.

I want you to learn that no matter your pain, suffering, or broken dreams, you’re Unbroken.

That your vast unlimited potential lies before you—waiting to be recognized and unleased. 

KARYN SHANKS, MD is a physician-healer-teacher-writer who lives and practices in Iowa City. Her work is inspired by the revolutionary 21st century science of Directable Human Potential—epigenetics, core Functional Medicine systems biology, neuroplasticity, and transformational psychology—and the wisdom gleaned from the journeys of thousands of clients over her 30-year career. 

She is the author of Heal—A Nine-Stage Roadmap to Recover Energy, Reverse Chronic Illness, and Claim the Potential of a Vibrant New You, as well as numerous e-books, articles, and weekly emails offering readers encouragement and support on their healing journey. You can find her at KarynShanksMD.com, where she offers her Unbroken Workshop, as well as on Facebook and Instagram.

Karyn is a graduate of the University of Chicago and is triple board certified in Internal Medicine, Integrative Holistic Medicine, and Functional Medicine. In 2001, she founded the first center in Iowa dedicated to a Functional Medicine whole-person approach to healing. She most loves her two grown sons, husband of 30 years, three dogs, books, gym companions, and nature playgrounds. 

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