Larry Burk, MD, CEHP
4 min readFeb 16, 2020


Transforming Symptoms as Metaphors: Is There a Hidden Meaning?

“Fear of the future. Not wanting to move.”

The worst charley horse of my life happened spontaneously one day in 1987 with a severe calf cramp coming out of the blue and causing me to collapse to the floor in agony. It went on for what seemed like minutes before I crawled over to the bookshelf to find a little blue book I had just purchased a few weeks before. It was Louise Hay’s Heal Your Body: The Mental Causes for Physical Illness and the Metaphysical Way to Overcome Them.

As a radiologist new to the world of holistic medicine my initial reaction to the book had been significant skepticism toward the encyclopedic list of every imaginable symptom accompanied by simplistic explanations as to the underlying meanings. However, at that moment of suffering, I was desperate to understand the cause of this unexplained pain. I looked up Lower Leg Problems and found “Fear of the future. Not wanting to move.”

The fact that I was closing on my first house the next day made the synchronicity of this message quite striking. So much so, that I immediately started repeating the affirmation that came with it. “I move forward with confidence and joy knowing that all is well in my future.” A few seconds later the leg spasm stopped as abruptly as it had started, and the house purchase went smoothly the next day.

Since that timely intervention I have used the book many times for my own personal health issues as well as for my coaching clients. Although there seems to be little scientific basis for these associations, there is more often than not a nugget of truth in them which can be useful to guide the mysterious process of self-healing. Deeper psychospiritual meanings can be hidden in such somatic metaphors.

A decade ago I had a 35 year old client who came complaining of severe back pain. Consulting the book once again I found “Fear of money. Lack of financial support.” He reported hating his current job situation and being financially manipulated by his mother. I taught him how to do Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT), also known as tapping, to release the pent up anger from his back which soon felt better.

A year later he returned with disabling sciatic pain down the right leg and an MRI scan showing a disc herniation. This time in addition to the financial issues the book indicated an unexpected meaning for Sciatica, “Being hypocritical.” I was challenged with how to share such a judgmental proclamation without insulting him, so I asked the client if there was something he was doing that he would advise his best friend not to do.

He paused for a moment of reflection, but soon commented that all his friends dislike his fiance and have encouraged him to dump her. He had been experiencing considerable emotional distress, but remained attached to the dysfunctional relationship. During the subsequent breakup EFT was useful in relieving the heartache as well as the leg pain. A couple years later he was in a better relationship and had found financial stability.

These metaphorical connections to symptoms may offer an explanation for one of the most puzzling research findings in my specialty of musculoskeletal radiology. There have been numerous MRI studies of the spine in thousands of asymptomatic volunteers showing many significant abnormalities ranging from disc degeneration to arthritis to disc herniation which progressively increase in frequency with advancing age.

Sharing this important information with clients suffering from back pain often creates cognitive dissonance and allows for a conversation about possible emotional roots of the symptoms. As I described in a prior blog, clients hate being told it is all in your head, but it may be more acceptable to ask Is Chronic Pain All in Your Brain? These metaphors live on in neurological feedback loops until transformed by an approach such as EFT.

Similar results have been discovered on MRI scans of the shoulder in asymptomatic volunteers including partial and full thickness rotator cuff tears. The book indicates that Shoulders “Represent our ability to carry our experiences in life joyously. We make life a burden with our attitude.” Frozen shoulder is a frustrating condition that is often triggered by repressed emotions such as anger which when released can be the key to rapid healing.

In his article on Symbolic Diseases, clinical immunologist/psychiatrist Brian Broom from New Zealand, has reviewed the scientific literature on psychosomatic illness, a term that was usually used perjoratively during my medical training. However, this concept does explain how EFT can facilitate healing of serious physical illnesses such as pain, immune and sinus conditions through the process of memory reconsolidation.

If the messages related to symptoms as metaphors are either denied or suppressed the information sometimes is communicated from the subconscious mind through dreams. Dreamwork can guide the tapping process to facilitate healing as featured in my in-person workshop Where the Healing Happens: Transforming Symptoms in the Lower 4 Chakras, on 4/19–21/2024 at the Art of Living Retreat Center in Boone, NC.



Larry Burk, MD, CEHP

Holistic radiologist, Certified Energy Health Practitioner, author of Dreams that Can Save Your Life: Early Warning Signs of Cancer and Other Diseases