Asking about a patient's faith is a somewhat regular occurrence for Dr. Rita Hancock.
Hancock, a pain management specialist in Norman, recently published “Radical Well-being: A biblical guide to overcoming pain, illness, and addictions.”
The book focuses on how a person's spiritual life, their emotions and their physical well being are connected.
Hancock answered questions about her approach to helping people relieve chronic pain and illness.
What prompted you to start asking people about things outside the physical diagnosis?
Hancock said she regularly sees people who have ailments that can't be explained.
For example, a patient might come in with irritable bowel syndrome and have been told by multiple doctors that they can't find a reason for their syndrome. All their tests will show up negative, and there won't be a clear-cut medical diagnosis for what's wrong.
“So what I've started doing in the last few years is really confronting them to try to find out if there's a stressor that could be contributing in some way,” Hancock said.
Hancock said she expected most people to resist her questions about faith and emotional health. She doesn't ask every patient, but for the ones she has asked have been receptive.
“They were just waiting for somebody to ask them about what was going on in their lives that was causing stress,” she said.
What symptoms to find in people who might be suffering pain related to their past traumas?
Before bringing up faith, Hancock uses every medical test available to rule out a physical problem. But if someone has a persistent problem, she might delve into their emotional and spiritual health, as well, she said.
“I think we should still rely on those primarily,” she said. “I'm a doctor primarily. It's just that sometimes science doesn't give us all the answers.”
Hancock said she has talked about faith with patients who suffer from fibromyalgia, migraines, unexplained spinal pain, depression, anxiety, irritable bowel syndrome, unexplained rashes, pelvis pain and TMJ, or temporomandibular joint disorder.
“Also people who have gone from doctor to doctor with no good answers,” she said.
Hancock said she finds that many of her patients with unexplained pain suffer from childhood trauma or feel guilty over something they've done. They've bottled up that trauma for so long that it presents as physical illness, she said.
As a pain management doctor, Hancock said she sees plenty of people who have actual alignment issues. But for patients who are holding in their emotions, an adjustment doesn't seem to provide long-term relief, she said.
When a person is able to work through their emotional pain, their muscles loosen, and they respond better to alignment and other forms of relief, Hancock said.
“You don't want to abuse your position as a physician by forcing your religious beliefs down somebody's throat, so you have to ask permission, but most people are open to that,” she said.
What have other doctors said to you about your approach?
Hancock said not all of her colleagues think it's a good idea to talk about faith.
“Part of the problem appears to be that we're afraid as clinicians ... to bring up the topic of faith because we're worried about the backlash,” Hancock said. “ ... But if faith is important to the person, you can resonate with them on that and help them heal in a deeper way.”
Hancock said she believes people are wired to have a relationship with God, and when they don't have that relationship, they can become ill. Having a relationship with God allows people to seek forgiveness for their sins and find that relief, she said.
“I believe it takes wisdom to know who needs what,” Hancock said. “You could have two patients with elbow pain, and one might need a shot, and one might need to talk about childhood abuse, but again, I always start with the concrete medical aspects, and I go to the emotional spiritual things if I can't get them better with traditional medicine.”