Dr. Tara DiRocco PT, DPT is a pelvic floor physical therapist passionate about chronic pain and pelvic health. After a career in tropical forest science and agriculture in her early 20's, her struggle with chronic pain and illness led her to yoga teaching, meditation, and ultimately to physical therapy school determined to heal. Piecing together tidbits of wisdom, she began to discern words that harm and words that heal, and was amazed by the ability of healthcare practitioners and fitness instructors alike to actually impede patient healing without even realizing. She eventually broke through her cycles of pain after taking a course from Dr. Howard Schubiner and Charlie Merrill, MSPT. She takes on the responsibility of patient care and pain coaching with her whole heart, and firmly believes every body has the power to heal themselves. Her certifications include RYT-200, 100 hour yoga therapeutics, multiple pelvic health certifications, and Empowered Relief instructor.
Q: Hi Tara! Thanks for sitting down with us. Can you share how you first got interested in working in the chronic pain space?
A: I think like a lot of people working with pain, it chose me. I had lower back pain for about 15 years, starting when I was a dancer in high school. Later on, I got diagnosed with Mollaret’s Meningitis and had multiple bouts of meningitis throughout my 20’s that resulted (or so I thought!) in daily chronic headaches and neck aches. I tried to push through and enjoy my 20’s working in the food and agriculture industry in San Francisco, but ultimately my body (again … or so I thought!) brought me down. Everything I’ve learned about pain has been a selfish, and at times desperate, endeavor to feel better.
And the good thing is … IT HAS WORKED! I’m one of those people who tried everything -- acupuncture, physical therapy, energy work, every kind of movement therapy, meditation, chiropractic, keeping a detailed journal of my symptoms to figure out what was causing it -- to no avail. Learning yoga and meditation definitely helped reduce some of my symptoms, but there were still terrible and tearful days where I’d consider applying for disability.
One fateful day, I heard the quote in a yoga class, “The belief that you’re broken is what is broken.” And something clicked. I began to think, “What if my pain wasn’t something wrong with my physical body? Or isn’t a product of disease in my body? What if everything I’ve been telling myself about my pain … just isn’t true?” I began to go to this same yoga teacher who taught classes encouraging exploratory movement without judgment of my body. I suddenly explored moving in ways that typically “hurt” (forward folding, bending down, rocking back and forth on my spin), but this lens of exploration and curiosity allowed me to step back and actually question what I was feeling. Was I actually feeling pain, or did I just expect to feel pain? Even posing this question during movement began to make me laugh, and eventually reduced my pain so much that I was even able to return to dancing!!! (I wasn’t very good, but hey, I hadn’t done hip hop for 10 years, so I had a lot of culture to catch up on!)
While I was able to greatly improve my low back pain through this new lens, I always put my chronic illness of Mollaret’s Meningitis in a different bucket. It’s caused by a herpes virus, and I came to believe that whenever I was stressed or ate the wrong food or drank too much caffeine, this virus would replicate enough in my body to cause a headache by 3 pm each day. It seems nuts to write now, but I believed this was the reason behind my daily 3 pm headache for 9 years. This belief was the culmination of different information I gathered on the internet and from different healthcare providers over the years, so I accepted it as the explanation for my pain. I would put a lot of pressure on myself to not be stressed (re: makes you more stressed!), to eat really well, and still, I’d get these debilitating neckaches and headaches that would leave me wrecked and crying myself to sleep by 5 pm each day. It wasn’t until I spoke with Dr. Howard Schubiner for the first time that I was able to break this cycle.
In just a 20 minute conversation, he listened to my story, my symptoms, and simply let me know that there is no way a virus can replicate itself every morning through 3 pm enough to cause the symptoms I was having. It just wasn’t possible. And BOOM. My world blew open again. Could it be that these symptoms too were actually a product of my brain trying to make sense of scary information I’d read on the internet, trying to protect me from ending up in the hospital again, and trying to protect me from what it believed was very real danger? All signs pointed to yes.
Dr. Schubiner suggested to me that I come up with a pain mantra to tell myself whenever I feel my symptoms in order to send new messages to my brain. I swear, I may get it tattooed on my body one day. I simply say to myself, “I am safe, I am strong, I am healthy, I am made of rainbow light,” until I believe it. Some days, it is hard to believe. Others, it is very easy to believe. At the end of the day, the belief that I am not broken is what saves me from my pain every time.
It’s not that pain is never there. It’s more that it just doesn’t bother me as much any more. I feel like I’m not caught up in its game. Often I now see my pain as my teacher -- it speaks out when I’m stressed, it tells me when I’ve been pushing the limit too much, it lets me know if I’m worried about something and need to take care of myself. And most times, it’s not there at all. Most times, I am safe, strong, healthy, and yes … made of rainbow light. Because, why not?!
Q: Wow. Thanks so much for sharing your incredible story of recovery!. We at Lin recognize that it can be difficult to deal with chronic pain, but are hopeful that we can help our members find relief (sometimes by using Dr. Schubiner’s model of care, where appropriate, that you mentioned above). Are there any challenges to helping people in pain that stand out to you? And why are you optimistic about conquering those challenges?
A: The idea that our brain has anything to do with our pain is deeply offensive to a lot of people. I get it, it goes against everything they have ever been told about their body and why they feel the way they feel. I probably wasn’t ready to hear this message for a lot of my 20’s.
The ironic thing is though, many people in chronic pain actually don’t have a reason as to why they feel the pain. Studies show again and again that tissue damage is not always (and often not at all) correlated to pain. This is so frustrating unless you understand that a neural circuit disorder is a very legitimate diagnosis and a very real reason for pain.
For me, a neural circuit disorder was finally the reason that set me free. And it was a much better reason than believing recurrent meningitis would take me down every month and eventually lead to my death, as one doctor told me.
I am optimistic because new studies coming out around pain neuroscience bring a message of hope, of empowerment, and of safety. I am optimistic because I have lived this journey and came out the other side so much better than where I started.
Q: So we’ve spoken a lot about pain today. But when you are not working on helping people tone down their pain, what do you do for fun?
A: Ooh fun! I live in Colorado and love me some backcountry snowboarding, hiking, mountain biking, and costume parties. I also love African dance, yoga, gardening, and raising chickens. My husband made me give away our chickens after COVID because they were getting *pretty* noisy for someone who works from home, but I hope to be raising some new chicks in no time :)
Q: That’s awesome - so amazing to hear your recovery story and all the great things you’re up to now! Where can people find more about your work?
A: You can find my free yoga classes on YouTube. I also interview others about their pain journeys on the Here Now Body Pod and blog from time to time at taradirocco.com. And I am a pelvic floor physical therapist in the Denver area for anyone local!