166: Escape from Physical Pain: An Interview with Dr. David Hanscom

In today’s podcast, David and Rhonda interview Dr. David Hanscom, a renowned and controversial spine surgeon who gave up a large and lucrative surgical practice in favor of helping and educating people struggling with back pain, directing them on the path to recovery without surgery or drugs.

Dr. Hanscom describes his personal journey and recovery from panic, pain, and other disabling somatic symptoms when he read Dr. Burns’ book, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, and began doing the written triple column technique to challenge his own negative thoughts and overcome his own feelings of depression, panic, hopelessness, and anger.

He also began to study alarming research reports indicating that many of the surgical procedures were no more effective than placebos; and even worse, he could see that back surgery often had damaging and even disabling and horrific effects on patients. He also discovered that most of the patients seeking surgery for back pain could be helped simply through talk therapy and support, by focusing on the problems in their lives, rather than simply focusing on pain and pills.

Dr. Burns supports Dr. Hanscom’s premise, that even physical pain can have powerful psychological causes and cures. Dr. Burns briefly summarizes his own research on hospitalized inpatients with significant emotional problems as well as chronic pain. He wanted to answer the question of why physical pain and negative feelings so often go hand-in-hand.

To find out, he studied changes in negative feelings, like depression, anxiety and anger, as well as the intensity of pain, in more than 100 patients attending a 90 minute cognitive therapy group. He saw that there were often massive shifts in negative feelings, like depression, anxiety, and anger, as well as the severity of physical pain, during the groups.

He analyzed the data with sophisticated statistical modeling techniques to evaluate two competing theories about why pain and negative feelings go hand-in-hand.

  1. Physical pain could cause negative feelings, like depression, anxiety and anger. This seems plausible, since physical pain is so debilitating, and just plain awful.
  2. Negative feelings could have a causal effect on physical pain.

The analyses indicated that there were causal effects in both directions, but the most powerful effect, by far, was the effect of negative emotions on physical pain. In fact, the analyses indicated that, on average, half of the physical pain these patients were experiencing, on average, was the direct result of their negative emotions.

This means that if you’re in pain, and you’re emotionally upset, which would be totally understandable, that a great deal of the pain you are feeling is the result of a magnification of the pain by your negative emotions.

There is a positive implication of this finding that supports what Dr. Hansom is saying–namely, that if you are in pain, including chronic pain, and you are willing to overcome your negative feelings and deal with the problems in your life, there is a good chance that your pain will improve substantially. Some people, as David saw in the groups, will experience a total elimination of pain–something he often observed within the group.

It is also possible that you will experience a reduction of your pain, but not a complete elimination. And it is possible that your pain will not improve when your negative feelings disappear–but at least you won’t have to struggle with pain and depression!

So he has now devoted his life to making people, as well as his surgical colleagues, aware of the realities vs. the myths of back surgery. To learn more, visit his website, or pick up a copy of his terrific book, Back in Control. The book includes a section on your personal roadmap out of pain.

Rhonda and I are incredibly grateful to Dr. Hanscom for this illuminating, challenging, and profoundly personal interview. We hope you enjoy it! And if you’ve been struggling with any kind of chronic or debilitating pain, we hope you will find some hope, as well as a drug-free path to recovery!

David D. Burns, M.D. & Rhonda Barovsky, Psy.D.


You can reach Dr. Burns at Dr. Rhonda Barovsky practices in Walnut Creek, California, and can be reached at Today’s featured photo is courtesy of Nancy Mueller–

If you like our jingle music and would like to support the composer Brett Van Donsel, you may download it here.

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I have two tremendous one-day workshop scheduled with my esteemed colleague, Dr. Jill Levitt, next year–

Workshops in 2020

High Speed Methods to Reduce Resistance
and Boost Motivation

This is the most important, and least understood, topic in psychotherapy. Nearly all therapeutic failure results from the failure to address resistance effectively. Therapists do not understand what causes resistance or how treat resistant and oppositional patients who “yes-but” you or fail to follow through on homework assignments.

Come to this workshop and learn how to melt away resistance for incredibly high-speed recovery!

You can join this workshop in person or online (live streaming) from anywhere in the world!

With Drs. David Burns and Jill Levitt

Feb 9. 2020 |  7 CE hours. $135

Learn More & Register


The Cognitive Distortion Starter Kit:
How to Crush Negative Thoughts

TEAM-CBT includes more than 100 powerful techniques to change the distorted thoughts that trigger negative emotions. But what techniques should I select for my patient who feels depressed, anxious, or angry?

As you know, in my book, Feeling Good, I listed the ten most common cognitive distortions, like All-or-Nothing Thinking, Should Statements, Emotional Reasoning, and more, and you probably use that list all the time in your clinical work. But do you know which techniques work the best for each distortion?

Come to this workshop and find out! You’ll learn with tons of cool techniques you can use every day to boost your clinical effectiveness.

You can join this workshop in person or online (live streaming) from anywhere in the world!

With Drs. David Burns and Jill Levitt

May 17, 2020 | 7 CE hours. $135

Learn More & Register

Coming this summer!

The Annual South San Francisco Intensive!

August 10 – 13, 2020

It’s Going to Be Awesome!

Videos, Live Demonstrations

Small Group Practice with Personal Feedback and Mentoring,

and Chances for Personal Work and Healing

Ultra-Rapid TEAM-CBT for Depression and Anxiety Disorders

Learn More and Register

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