Published on July 3rd, 2017 | by Catherine Tingey0
Remembering John Sarno, MD
Remembering John Sarno, MD
A giant in the field of mind-body medicine passed away last week one day shy of 94. Dr. John Sarno brought a new perspective into medicine – specifically the role of the mind in pain and more specifically, back pain, that indelibly touched thousands of people’s lives.
I first came across his book, Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection, when it was recommended to me by a fellow yoga student. At the time, I was in the throes of crippling back pain brought on by a perfect storm of factors: structural misalignment (lop-sided adjustment in Pigeon Pose leading to sacral torsion, a genetic predisposition for back pain, and a lot of life stress).
Sarno’s thesis is surprisingly simple and easy to disregard — that the mind is responsible for a large percentage of chronic pain and chronic back pain seems to afflict a certain segment of the population most acutely – overachieving, perfectionistic do-gooders who don’t like to get angry.
Frankly, I thought the book – which is easy to read and for the layperson – was overly simplistic and made light of the very REAL pain I was experiencing. How could Sarno explain away car accidents and blunt force traumas to the spine? How could he explain sciatica which is a very real inflammation of the largest nerve in the body? It just seemed like quackery. After all, I had in hand an MRI report that showed a 4mm herniated disc at L5-S1. There WAS something wrong with me.
But nothing I had already tried had really worked. I’d seen chiropractors, spine surgeons, acupuncturists, pain management specialists, and I’d recently had a steroid injection. And I’d lost all semblance of my previous life. So what did I have to lose but at least give his ideas a test drive? And it was impossible to ignore the 1500+ Amazon reviews of people waxing evangelical about him, many having found a total reversal of pain just by reading some words on a page!
So I read some more. Sarno says it takes about 6-8 weeks for pain to resolve and during that time, the pain may move around from area to area within the body. He advocates talking to your pain and telling it to shut up.
In Sarno’s world, pain is a sneaky and conniving shape-shifter that distracts us from our real affliction – feeling emotions (mostly anger/rage) which we avoid. I thought this was a bit ridiculous but kept reading.
Much to my surprise, within 24 hours of reading his book, my pain levels had diminished from a 10/10 to a 2/10.
Here’s an excerpt from my journal at the time:
“I am the personality type he talks about. I NEVER get angry. I’m such a little perfectionist. I am a serene and tranquil yogi, damnit! As I was reading, I could feel my pain ratchet down a notch, from 7-6. Impatient, I skipped to Chapter 4. I started shouting at my brain to SHUT THE FUCK UP and my back and butt to RELAX, while alternately saying, I AM A NUT-JOB!!!!!!’ Can anyone hear me? Percocet, helloooo? My pain now at a 2, I fell asleep.”
In the weeks that followed, I slowly began a return to life. It was NOT a linear progression and it did not resolve as quickly as many of the reviewers of his book because I did have some structural issues. But I got out of a wheelchair, started walking again, resumed teaching and slowly began to heal my body with gentle yoga.
I wish I could say that this book was THE game-changer, but it was more like the catalyst. I began to look at chronic pain, and the fear that comes from living with chronic pain, in a new light. If repressed emotions, specifically anger, were lodging in my body and causing pain, the first step was to become aware of them.
I still believe a good percentage of chronic back pain is complex in origin and cannot be healed simply by reading a single book.
That said, there is so much of worth in Sarno’s work that we can’t ignore the mind, and the role of our ‘ugly’ and repressed emotions in our pain.
If you are suffering from chronic pain, perhaps living a diminished life that barely resembles your life before chronic pain, consider reading this book with an open mind. It might not totally resolve your pain overnight (but hopefully it does), but it just might be a component in your new lease on life. What do you have to lose?