The phenomenon of retracing is occasionally experienced by chiropractic patients. What is retracing? It is the re-experiencing or re-awakening of old pain or other symptoms, including memories or even emotions that seem suddenly to erupt to the surface. It appears to be a part of the healing process. Often, this is also referred to as the "healing reaction response" by some practitioners. Some examples may make this more understandable:
A person is pleased with his/her chiropractic care but suddenly finds the original symptoms returning. These symptoms clear up within a short time. A person receives a spinal adjustment and, while resting afterwards, suddenly experiences such intense feelings of lightness and happiness that he/she begins to laugh. Or, the reverse occurs and the person begins to cry. Again, retracing.
Someone receives a spinal adjustment and shortly thereafter re-experiences the accident in which he/she was injured, being suddenly filled with fear and confusion. The feelings soon pass.
A patient begins to recover his/her health after a few chiropractic spinal adjustments, but one day feels pain. This might be in any part of the body; in the following (true) case it was the wrist:
"Did you ever have any problems with your wrist before?" asked the doctor.
"Yes, I broke it a few years ago in the very spot I now feel pain."
"You're probably retracing," said the doctor. "The area never healed completely and is now completing the healing process. The symptoms will not last for long." A person receives a spinal adjustment and becomes consumed with memories of childhood. Once again, retracing.
Why Does Retracing Occur?
It appears that the body tissues themselves have a "memory" which records the traumas, accidents and injuries it has experienced. Since injuries are often accompanied by feelings of panic, shock, anger and/or hysteria, the retracing patient may feel these emotions "leaving" as the physical injury begins to heal.
Retracing is not always dramatic. Sometimes it may manifest itself as simply the urge to take deep, satisfying breaths while undergoing care. There may be a release of psycho-physical energy going on at this moment, though it may not be accompanied by any conscious memories. Yet retracing may be occurring in such instances.
Retracing is real
Don't think of retracing as being imaginary, unreal or placebo. Retracing experiences are very real and can be both physically and emotionally quite intense. In such instances it's often difficult to see the experience as part of the healing process. Patients going through a particularly intense retracing pattern may feel as if they've had a serious relapse or are perhaps even getting worse.
Although retracing experiences usually last a short time and often pass relatively quickly, patients have been known to terminate their care as a result of them. During this period it is especially important that the patient tell the chiropractor what is going on. Patients who terminate their care as a result of retracing symptoms may be cheating themselves of complete recovery
Other Healing Arts
The phenomenon of retracing has long been recognized by the chiropractic profession1 and other healing arts as well, often under different names. For example, CranioSacral Therapy (CST), developed by John Upledger, D.O., uses the terms "unwinding" and "somato-emotional release" to describe this phenomenon. Upledger's explanation of the mechanism is drawn from his research on body energies and the role of the connective tissue in body structure:
From our experience, it would seem that body tissues (especially connective tissues) possess a memory. When an injuring force occurs, the tissue which receives the force is changed. Perhaps it retains the energy of impact. A level of increased kinetic activity or higher entropy is set up in the impaired area. The human body then either dissipates that energy and returns to normal; or the body somehow localizes the impact energy and walls it off, much as it walls off the tubercle bacillus during the inactive state of the disease. After the energy of the injury has been effectively isolated, the body adapts to this area. Energy (electrical, magnetic, prana, Qi or your own personal preference) is then forced to move around this area rather than through it.... When the original injury is discovered, the repressed emotional components of the somatic injury frequently and concurrently release.2
Many other forms of bodywork such as Rolfing, shiatsu and massage therapy also recognize this phenomenon of healing. Practitioners have noticed patients experiencing "flashbacks" as they release energy long trapped in their bodies.
Homeopathy has codified the observations of Constatine Hering, a homeopathic researcher, as Hering's Law, which views retracing as a part of a three-part healing process. According to this law, "cures" occur: 1) from interior to exterior; 2) from the most vital to the least vital organs; and 3) in reverse order from that in which the symptoms appeared.3
A parallel of the retracing phenomenon has been recognized in the field of psychotherapy and termed progressive abreactive regression or PAR.4
This PAR has been recognized as a phase one goes through as part of the movement towards healing and wholeness. As the individual "moves out to new behaviors and accomplishments... [he/she] turns inward to experience fears and dysfunctional programs that need to be worked out."5 PAR appears normally in human affairs as a part of growth at all levels. An example of a person experiencing PAR is one who gets a long-deserved promotion and begins to be troubled by feelings of incompetence.
Retracing and Medicine?
Retracing seems to occur often with bodywork and therapies that work at balancing the body's energies and/or at stress reduction.
But it seems uncommon in standard medical practice. This may be because of the tendency of medicines to suppress disease and mask symptoms. As we have seen, this can be dangerous.
This is demonstrated by an interesting example from Oriental medicine: Oriental medical theory regards the skin as being related to the bronchi and lungs because both help the body to breathe. If a skin condition is suppressed, according to the theory, it may go deeper and affect the lungs and bronchi. In actual fact, it has been observed that many children suffering from asthma were, as infants, treated with cortisone for skin conditions such as eczema -- the cortisone suppressed the skin disease and drove it into the lungs and bronchi to emerge as asthma.
A Need For More Study
There are many unanswered questions regarding retracing. More study needs to be done regarding this phenomenon of healing.
1. Stephensen, R.W. Chiropractic textbook. Davenport, IA: Palmer School of Chiropractic, 1927, pp. 98-99.
2. Upledger, J. & Vredevoogd, J.D. CranioSacral therapy Seattle, WA: Eastland Press, 1983, p. 251.
3. Coulter, H.L. Homeopathic science & modern medicine. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1980, p. 24.
4. Stein, A. Comprehensive family therapy. In R. Herink (Ed.) The psychotherapy handbook. New York: New American Library, 1980, pp. 204-207.
5. Kirschner, D.A. & Kirschner, S. Comprehensive family therapy. New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1986, pp. 18-19.