Thinking about Scoliosis through the work of Dr. Gabor Maté

This is Part 28 of a serial blog originally titled 'Martha Carter's Healing Journey'. In Part 27, my discussion with a private consult client brings about reflections, memories, realizations, and questions. In Part 26, I share key TIPS for any exercise or movement practice you might engage in - inspired by my hand-drawn stick figures in the ‘10 Simple Exercises for Scoliosis and Fusions’ we featured for Scoliosis Awareness month in June. Missed the earlier posts? Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12, Part 13, Part 14, Part 15, Part 16, Part 17, Part 18, Part 19, Part 20, Part 21, Part 22, Part 23, Part 24 and Part 25.

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Recently, I have been listening to many podcasts and watching Youtube videos exploring the Stress-Disease Connection by the acclaimed physician, speaker, teacher, and best-selling author, Dr. Gabor Maté. His talks are fascinating, sprinkled with insights from working as a physician, as well as his own personal experience dealing with addictions, depression, and anxiety. His research around trauma and healing intrigue me.

He does not talk about scoliosis specifically, but he talks about the causes of autoimmune and chronic illnesses - the causes of ‘dis-ease’, and how they are often rooted in childhood ‘adaptations’ for survival. Children intuitively ‘bend’ their own responses to please the world around them; particularly for their parents or other elders who they depend on for their basic needs.

It makes me wonder if the ‘bending’ of my spine (and anyone with scoliosis for that matter) is related to a childhood survival response?

I KNOW THIS IS A BIG QUESTION, but why not ask it?

After all, there is no known cause for scoliosis. So bear with me, as I follow some of Dr. Maté’s logic to explore the question further in this blog post.

GABOR’S APPROACH - WHAT CAUSES ILLNESS?

A large part of Dr. Maté’s research has centred on how western medicine mistakenly separates illness from health, in addition to regarding the mind, body, and environment as three separate entities. As he points out, this is neither valid, nor scientific. All the research shows these separations are invalid. He says, “Although science has known this for years, these insights of science do not penetrate western medical practice.”

He asks a lot of questions like, what is illness? What causes illness? 

He comments on how western medicine looks at conditions like chronic pain, disease (dis-ease), and illness as physical events happening TO a body - having no relationship to that person’s experiences, or their emotions, or other influences around them. He goes into great detail to explain how this is a false approach.

WE’RE BIO PSYCHO SOCIAL CREATURES

One of the interesting realities of being human is that as babies, we are completely and totally dependent on others for a number of years before we can become independent, whereas all other animals become mobile and independent much more quickly. One term he uses regularly is to refer to humans as ‘bio psycho social’ creatures, and that as a result, healing needs to take all these aspects of a person into consideration. In his opinion there is always a spiritual connection as well. Regardless of one’s particular religion, their belief system is part of their whole. 

One example he refers to is some research that was done around breast cancer. Women who were lonely did not necessarily get cancer more than the general population. And women who were depressed did not show an increase of the disease. But when a woman was both lonely and depressed, the incidence of breast cancer was NINE times higher. That is a dramatic increase! 

Based on his research, a person gets sick because of an imbalance in their way of being. The illness appears because something has gone wrong in their bio-psycho-social-spiritual self. And furthermore, he asserts, “Who gets sick and who doesn’t is not random. In my research, the people who got sick with chronic illness showed similar patterns, and there are NO exceptions.” 

Yikes!

He explains that when we are young, we get attached to our caretakers because we need them to survive. For example, if a child is not allowed to express themselves in an authentic way, then they will learn to adapt so that their way of being is acceptable. If they are not allowed to show anger, a child will learn to repress it in order to maintain the attachment relationship. And repressing any negative emotions will affect the immune system because in a ‘system’ you cannot suppress one thing without suppressing another. In a short period of time, the child has no choice but to become less authentic at the same time as becoming more fragile. And over the years, those adaptations that helped the child survive in the short term are what make them sick in the long term.

According to Dr. Maté, this is the source of ALL PATHOLOGY!

The big problem is that we really need our authenticity to thrive in this world. Like all animals, we need to be in touch with our body sensations and intuitive feelings. We need all our incredible faculties to work as a system to optimally navigate life’s challeneges.

SIGNIFICANT RISK FACTORS IN CAUSES OF CHRONIC ILLNESS

With the above in mind, here is Dr. Maté’s list of significant risk factors in the case of chronic illness:

  • Automatic concern for the emotional needs of others instead of your own.

  • Putting aside the needs of self.

  • Compulsive and rigid identification to duty, role, and responsibility rather than the authentic self.

  • Suppression of so called negative emotions, such as anger, which leads to suppression of the immune system.

  • Feeling responsible for how other people feel.

  • Never wanting to disappoint anyone; never saying no.

SO WHAT ABOUT SCOLIOSIS?

One thing Dr. Maté says that really caught my attention is that very few genetic diseases exist - meaning diseases where if you have the gene, you will undoubtedly get the disease. Often there is a genetic component - perhaps a gene that makes you more prone to contracting a disease for example - but genetics are rarely the main or only cause. This surprised me.

Scoliosis falls into this category. It is considered polygenic, meaning there is more than one gene involved, and not everyone with the condition has the same gene combination. 

So my question is this - is scoliosis an adaptation? And if so, to what?

SCOLIOSIS THROUGH THE BIO PSYCHO SOCIAL + SPIRITUAL LENS

Following Dr. Maté’s thinking and applying it to scoliosis, if everything is connected, then it makes sense that the twist and curve of the spine could somehow be connected to the psychological, social and/or spiritual aspects of that person as well. 

Breaking it down:

Bio:

I have often heard theories that scoliosis is caused by a childhood accident where maybe one vertebra becomes displaced and the rest grew crooked after that. Or that some physical injury and/or emotional upset causes the muscles to become unevenly contracted which pulled the spine into a twisted pattern which, if left untreated, can cause the person to get stuck there…?

Thinking about my own story, I reflect on the two major accidents I suffered before age two. The first one was before I could walk. Apparently, I dragged myself up to the kitchen counter where I managed to pull a mug of scalding hot coffee onto myself, causing immediate and severe burns on my neck and chest. I know that created a lot of trauma for me - and my family, as they were required to rush me to emergency where I had to have several skin healing procedures over the next few years. And within the same year, while I was learning to walk, I fell towards a staircase, catching one of my tiny nostrils on the sharp cement corner which broke my little nose and ripped the delicate skin above my upper lip, requiring several stitches. Poor me! My poor parents!  

Is it possible these accidents planted the seed for my scoliosis that appeared nine years later? Maybe...

But don’t all kids fall at some point? So why don’t all kids get curved spines?

And why more girls than boys? 

I can’t help but wonder if there is a way to pinpoint any of this. 

Maybe we need to consider taking into account the psycho, social, and spiritual aspects of being human?

Psycho and Social:

With every physical accident, comes both emotional and social trauma. Body discomfort can lead to negative emotions such as fear, anger, frustration and sadness, not to mention a sense of isolation while going through medical procedures and recovery. Injured people need social support, and without it, they may have a harder time healing. Considering that the occurrence of breast cancer is much greater for women who are both lonely and depressed, it makes sense that people who have both a physical trauma and relative social isolation plus negative emotions may be more likely to develop problems from an accident. In addition, we know that suppression of negative emotions will cause suppression of the immune system, making people even more susceptible to health problems. 

Speaking of the immune system, what if scoliosis IS related to the immune system? Can scoliosis be considered an autoimmune condition?

Spiritual:

Or what about the spiritual - is the cause of scoliosis related to a spiritual crisis? The most common form of scoliosis appears in otherwise healthy adolescents. Do spines start curving and twisting due to the powers of adolescent angst, when many teenagers feel uncertain of where they are going; wondering what their place is in the world? Maybe they are feeling unsupported by their parents to be who they want to be, leading to more ‘adaptation’?

But then again, don’t all teens feel pressure from the demands of school, parents, and peers at some point? Don’t we all go through feelings of being misunderstood or unsupported for who we are? 

Is it possible that scoliosis, similar to other chronic conditions, is due to a COMBO of THESE elements? Or that these elements somehow interplay with genetic connections?

I have no idea how anyone could go about figuring that out scientifically, but it makes sense to me that it is very possible that scoliosis is a physical manifestation of various adaptations - physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. While adapting to survive, we can easily lose connection to our own essence which could easily lead us to lose our ‘centre’. Natural reaction and responses may force us to ‘bend’ ourselves a little bit; to literally twist ourselves… to survive.

Perhaps by applying Dr. Maté’s wisdom of the BIO PSYCHO SOCIAL SPIRITUAL aspects of people to scoliosis diagnoses, ‘we’ (meaning anyone interested) can start to unravel some of the mysteries around the cause of this largely misunderstood condition - and possibly find some answers while we are at it. 

Just a thought.

Does anyone know any researchers out there who might want to take this on?


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