Dr John Ernest Sarno Jr. was of the opinion that chronic back pain was caused by psychological anxieties of the mind. This is to say; the pain is all in the patient’s head – and mainly due to repressed emotions and problems that begs attention. The heavy role of the subconscious in Dr Sarno’s diagnosis of back pain is from the influence of Sigmund Freud, who was a major force in psychology that attributed the unconscious mind as a person’s life-determining factor.

Dr John Sarno, a favourite among back pain sufferers, claimed that back pain was a thing of the mind and a product of repressed emotions that needed to be addressed in order for patients to get better. Photo credit: The New York Times
Dr John Sarno, a favourite among back pain sufferers, claimed that back pain was a thing of the mind and a product of repressed emotions that needed to be addressed in order for patients to get better. Photo credit: The New York Times

It was because of this and the fact that his work was not based on scientific research that his medical peers didn’t take him seriously. He was considered a fraud by the sceptics, but a hero to 80% of his patients who got better. Regardless, Dr Sarno forged on and continued to develop and refine his concepts for over 50 years.

“It was him against the world, yet he was never afraid of not fitting in,” expressed Dr Eric Sherman, a psychotherapist who worked with Dr Sarno for many years. “He had a ‘damn the torpedoes’ perspective on his work, and was notoriously indifferent to others’ opinions of him.”

Addressing demons through Sarno’s TMS

Dr Sarno coined his diagnosis as Tension Myoneural Syndrome (TMS). The patients who were not responding to conventional methods of treatment were made to understand the psychosomatic origins of the pain; and thereafter, got better through journaling regularly and leading active lives. In some chronic cases, psychotherapy was suggested.

Under Dr Sarno’s tree of TMS, the body is said to react in a fight-or-flee mechanism to the imposed stress and the repressed emotions as the back pain. When the body is imbalanced due to stress and other discomforts, oxygen will tend to flock to the vital organs in a fight of survival. This will reduce the oxygen supply to other areas of the body such as the back – causing it pain.

Dr Sarno also ascribed the physical hurt of a back pain to be the manifestation of emotional hurt through unaddressed and repressed emotions to the unconscious mind. It was the body’s way of distracting from the actual issue – by creating a physical pain for the mind to focus on. Dr Sarno stressed that it was important for the repressed issues to be brought to light and dealt with in order for patients to move towards a pain-free life.

Dr Sarno’s popularity soared throughout 1980s to the 90s – a time when back discomfort was believed to be due to mechanical problem (a bulging disc, say, or joint arthritis); and ‘bed rest’ was the common piece of advice doctors gave. Instead, Dr Sarno suggested for patients to lead normal, active lives – an approach which made him the constant subject of controversy. He admitted that he never tested his methods through studies; but the number of people healed continued to grow.

He rather preferred to spend his time helping people at his New York University practice than doing research. “My proof is that my patients get better,” he often told his doubters.

According to Dr Sarno, the physical hurt of a back pain is the manifestation of emotional hurt through “unaddressed and repressed” emotions to the unconscious mind
According to Dr Sarno, the physical hurt of a back pain is the manifestation of emotional hurt through “unaddressed and repressed” emotions to the unconscious mind

Embracing Sarno-esque techniques

To date, TMS is still not accepted by mainstream medicine. Dr Sarno’s claims were not replicated; nor scientifically backed up, and considered to be too general for the varying population. Nonetheless, his methods gained a cult-like following, with many big names attesting to his methods – namely actress Anne Bancroft and radio personality Howard Stern.

In addition, recent scientific findings are beginning to credit Sarno as being ahead of his time. A 2007 study by University of Southern California where patients underwent mind-body treatment, such as understanding through extensive reading, regular journaling and psychotherapy, noted a reduced pain of 52%. A Mind-Body Medicine programme in Providence Hospital in Michigan was also set up several years back based on Sarno’s work.

Sadly, Dr Sarno passed away this June – due to cardiac failure, just one day shy from turning 94. A documentary about Sarno’s work by a filmmaker (who was also his patient) was released later that week of his passing. He had authored three books during his lifetime about psychosomatic illness – selling over a million copies and making a difference in the lives of people he mostly had not met. MIMS


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Sources:
https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2017/10/2/16338094/dr-john-sarno-healing-back-pain
https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/23/science/john-sarno-dead-healing-back-pain-doctor.html
https://www.thestar.com/life/health_wellness/2017/07/16/john-sarnos-mind-body-theory-helped-thousands-with-chronic-pain.html