Ooh, My Back - A Look at Hard of Hearing Tension Myositis Syndrome

Quick, tense your shoulders. Lift them an inch or two higher than normal. Hold this tension for about 15 seconds, then let go. Ahhhh, nice, isn’t it? Now tense them again. This time, stick your head forward at an awkward angle and squint. Hold this position for, say, 35 years. Welcome to the world of the hard of hearing.

I never realized being hard of hearing was so exhausting. As a culturally Deaf person I’ve had the luxury of understanding my signing friends and relatives with minimal effort. Likewise, there are countless hearing people who can easily hold a conversation without even looking at each other. But the hard of hearing? It can be an entirely different story, one I’d completely forgotten.

Yes, there once was a time when I was not quite hearing and not quite deaf. Spoken English was my language of choice for many years, but that was so long ago. It wasn’t until a mental health professionals’ workshop in the spring of 2002 when someone took me back to those lost years of “Eh? Whazzat?”

Dr. Samuel Trychin, hard of hearing himself, gave a fascinating keynote address. He shared several anecdotes about the hard of hearing experience, including a few hilarious misunderstandings that had everyone chuckling. But as Dr. Trychin pointed out, it was not entirely a laughing matter.

Included in the daily grind of being hard of hearing are some not so funny physical and emotional symptoms. The mental stress of constantly trying to keep up with what people are saying can bring forth some very real problems such as muscle tension, fatigue, high blood pressure, anxiety, irritability, and much more.

As I soaked up all of this information, suddenly I recalled those dreaded days when I had to sit up front, read lips, wear my hearing aid, and still make a fool out of myself with misunderstandings galore.

“Holy smokes,” I said to a friend sitting next to me. “I’m a recovering HOH!” We laughed but didn’t think much about it afterward.

And then, three months later, I blew out my back lifting heavy furniture. To my relief, an MRI indicated it was not a severe injury. A follow-up evaluation with a physical therapist revealed unusual tightness in the muscles supporting my back. This, more than the heavy furniture, was what caused the trouble. It was like a tight rubber band just about ready to snap, an accident waiting to happen. The heavy lifting simply pushed it over the edge.

Soon afterward I came across an intriguing book called Healing Back Pain by Dr. John Sarno. He insists that a great majority of back problems, save for the rare few serious conditions, are a result of being under too much stress. He even has a name for it: Tension Myositis Syndrome. It often occurs between the ages of 30 and 60, also known as the years of responsibility.

In a nutshell, stubborn morons like me are too proud to admit we’re overwhelmed. Instead it is much easier to go “Ooh, my back!” and chill out on the Barcalounger. In my house, “Ooh, my back!” can often be heard around 1:00 on any given Sunday -- just in time for the opening kickoff.

Seriously, Dr. Sarno’s book clearly demonstrates how a lot of our emotional stress is suppressed and consequently emerges in other ways. Namely, back pain. Among the symptoms of TMS are muscle tension, fatigue, high blood pressure, anxiety, irritability, and... waitaminute! Where have we seen this before?

Upon reading Dr. Sarno’s findings, I immediately dug up an old transcript of Dr. Trychin’s presentation. The physical symptoms of the hard of hearing and of Tension Myositis Syndrome were practically identical. Eureka! I think I just discovered Hard of Hearing Tension Myositis Syndrome.

It makes sense, it really does. Dr. Sarno says our daily stress is a factor in back pain; Dr. Trychin indicates “chronic muscle tension” comes with the territory for the hard of hearing. Dr. Sarno reveals that the try-to-please-everyone personality type tends to get TMS, while Dr. Trychin describes some hard of hearing people as “overfunctioning” and feeling “totally responsible for communication.” The parallel between these two guys is uncanny.

So if you are hard of hearing and you have some kind of back or neck pain, I strongly suggest reading up on both Dr. Trychin and Dr. Sarno. And, as both of them suggest, you could benefit from an attitude overhaul.

Face it, you are who you are. If other people have a problem with it, tough cookies. As Dr. Trychin observes, a lot of hard of hearing people place the burden on themselves. The truth is, communication is a two way street. Understand this, and don’t kick yourself in the butt when Mr. Walrus Mustache mumbles something you can’t understand. Other people need to meet you halfway. If they don’t, they’re not worth your time.

And even though the focus of this article is on the hard of hearing, I don’t think the culturally Deaf are immune to Hard of Hearing Tension Myositis Syndrome. Many deaf people have grown up in families where few or no people sign. Many have been pressured into accepting a communication method that is not comfortable for them.

Either way, deaf or hard of hearing, it’s time you start being nice to yourself. Loosen up and get yourself to the gym or a health spa (Note: As with any exercise program, check with your doctor before you start). Get a massage, jump in the hot tub, or burn off stress by hitting the weights. Any form of exercise and relaxation training will do you good.

Well, I’m cured now. I never knew that my school days of sitting up front, hunching my shoulders, reading lips, and trying to fit in with the hearing folks would cause my back to go kablooey several years later. But again, I’m fine.

Wish I could stay, but here comes the wife asking me to get off the computer and throw out the trash.

Ooh, my back...

Editor’s note: This article was originally published December 2002 in the National Association of the Deaf’s Members Only website.

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