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Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection
by John E. Sarno, M.D.
Dr. Sarno, through many years of treating patients with back pain, has discovered what he considers an epidemic of back pain in the U.S. and states that usually the cause is not an accident or a degenerative disease. He attributes it to repressed emotions, usually anger or anxiety, and says that the stressful situation that causes the Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS) does not always have to be resolved for the pain to go away. The patient just needs to recognize the mind-body connection that he is experiencing.
I have not tried to apply Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection’s seemingly simple techniques; I have only read the book. Dr. Sarno’s detailed discussion of the failure of traditional medicine’s handling of back pain does make sense. He advises someone with back pain to consult with a doctor to get that perspective, but then evaluate their symptoms in the light of his thesis. He also says many other conditions such as eczema, headaches, and irritable bowl syndrome may be attributable to repressed emotions also.
Dr. Sarno cites a lot of anecdotal evidence as well as data gained from surveys of patients to support his theory. He does not claim to understand how the brain can exert such powerful control over the body, but reminds the reader that there are many things about the way the brain works that are not completely understood yet. Dr. Sarno is a medical doctor, not a salesman, not a slick businessman ready to perform on morning TV. His background is displayed in his writing style, and my 4 star rating reflects that. His bold stance against the traditional and unsuccessful medical view of back pain and his obvious enthusiasm for helping those with back pain rates 5 stars.
- Much of the book is technical. The chapter about his technique is vague, maybe because it is so simple and we expect more bells and whistles from modern medicine. Because of these factors, I found the Appendix particularly valuable. It is comprised of “Letters from Patients” and shows concretely how various patients have applied his theory and their results.
- Having finished this book on the mind/body connection, which deals primarily with the power of repressed emotions, I was amazed as I started a fictional book to discover at least four prominent references in the first chapter to how the characters realistically reacted viscerally in various ways to stress inducing moments. I reflected that if people instantaneously respond physically (tightening muscles, a sinking feeling in the gut) to anxiety, then Dr. Sarno’s connection of repressed emotions and body pain seems rational even if ignored by the medical community.
Publication: Original 1991, Kindle 2001—Hachette Book Group
Though the low back is the most common location for an acute attack, it can occur anywhere in the neck, shoulders, or upper and lower back. Wherever it occurs, it is the most painful thing I know of in clinical medicine, which is ironic because it is completely harmless.
It is not the occasion itself but the degree of anxiety or anger that it generates that determines if there will be a physical reaction. The important thing is the emotion generated and repressed, for we have a built-in tendency to repress unpleasant, painful, or embarrassing emotions. These repressed feelings are the stimulus for TMS and other disorders like it. Anxiety and anger are two of those undesirable emotions that we would rather not be aware of, and so the mind keeps them in the subterranean precincts of the subconscious if it possibly can.
Traditional medical diagnoses focus on the machine, the body, while the real problem seems to relate to what makes the machine work—the mind. TMS is characterized by physical pain, but that acute discomfort is induced by the psychological phenomena rather than structural abnormalities or muscle deficiency.