Back Pain Cured by Sarno’s Ideas

Two years ago, a professor of decision science wrote me to say that Vitamin D3 in the morning greatly improved his sleep. Recently he wrote again:

Once again you have dramatically improved my life through your blog.

In this Assorted Links post you offered:

The back pain of a friend of mine, which had lasted 20 years and was getting worse, went away when he followed this doctor’s advice

I read the link about Dr. Sarno and went to Amazon to check out his book, “Healing Back Pain”. 700 reviews with a 4.5 star rating. I spent two hours reading the reviews. Person after person saying, “my back is better” and nobody really described what the book had them do. I bought it two weeks ago.

In a nutshell, Sarno says that this type of back pain is caused by oxygen deprivation of some back muscles/tendons, and that the mind has does this as a defense mechanism so I don’t have to confront my subconscious anger.

I don’t have to pinpoint the source of my anger. I don’t have to come to grips with it and stop being angry. I just have to acknowledge the anger. That’s it. I read half the book in one sitting. I thought, this is crazy, but it has 700 4+ stars at Amazon. Maybe it does work.

My wife and I have two cars. One of them is a small Saturn. I hate it. It hurts my back to get in or out of it, and if I drive for more than five minutes I have to squirm to keep the back pain under control. Last week I took the Saturn for two half hour drives with only one wince of pain. Today I took it to the gym (a five minute drive) but it didn’t hurt to get in or out.

In the morning, to get out of bed, I have to roll over and swing my legs out toward the floor and then prop myself up into a sitting position. At least, that’s how I’ve done it for the past year. This week, I just sat up in bed with no pain. Every morning.

I am still a bit weak in the lower back, after more than a year of restricted physical activity. But this is amazing.

Interview with Sarno on Larry King Live (1999).

13 Replies to “Back Pain Cured by Sarno’s Ideas”

  1. Very interesting! I occasionally get lower back pain. It comes and goes. It is probably exacerbated by my bad (but comfortable) habit of laying on the floor on my stomach when I read, surf the internet, or do programming. You mentioned lack of oxygen. I started taking HBOT treatments a few weeks ago, and have not had any pain since, even though I’ve been spending more time laying down. (I also noticed that my blood sugar readings tend to be lower after an HBOT treatment.)

  2. Apparently for Sarno’s treatment to work, you have to believe in it – he claims to have a really high success rate among people who do. But the problem with the claim “you have to believe in this for it to work” is that causality could go either way. The reverse story would be: “people for whom this doesn’t seem to work are highly unlikely to believe in it.”

  3. I was treated according to the Sarno method under his successor, Dr. Ira Rashbaum in NYC. (Sarno is retired.) Though I have long had some back pain, the reason I went was unexplainable wrist pain; this excruciating pain (could not use my hand, could not fall asleep) would come every few weeks and last a couple of days. It happened a total of about 20 times. After studying the materials Dr. Rashbaum gave me, the wrist pain never came back.

    Sarno does not claim to know the full mechanism of this sort of pain, but explained it as the way the mind is structured (several different brain parts trying to work together) at this point in our evolution. Something in the brain decides to initiate this process, he said, in order to prevent deeply repressed anger from bursting into our conscious mind, since such a “bursting” is seen as a danger by some part of the brain; it is done via the autonomic nervous system, which can, he said, slightly but quickly impair oxygen flow to the muscles, nerves, tendons; Sarno says that this slight change can cause intense pain. (He also suggested that fibromyalgia and other ailments could be caused by this same mechanism.) He wrote that there are also medical studies showing evidence of mild oxygen deprivation in the nuclei of muscle cells of patients with back pain.

    I recommend “The Mindbody Prescription,” his later and more fully realized book on this so-called “TMS” theory.

    Glen, regarding the idea of having to have “belief” in the method, this is indeed a problem for some patients. I sort of got past it by resolving to be as open-minded as one can be, which I think is enough.

  4. I don’t know much about Sarno, but I’m puzzled by the disparity between the seeming wackiness of his ideas (on the one hand) and the large number of people who experienced positive results (on the other hand). I wonder if Sarno’s methods work for reasons other than the ones he postulates.

  5. Well oxygen deprivation could be considered a general cause to almost any issue, sort of like inflammation. Mark Sisson has mentioned a study about stress perception and blood vessel dilation vs constriction–maybe that is at work here.

  6. CC, I know it is not the same thing, but Sarno addresses chronic fatigue syndrome in “The Mindbody Prescription” as a possible “equivalent” of this same (“TMS”) syndrome, so I think it’s possible that he also thought that about hypersomnia. He pointed out that people with hypersomnia have many of the same psychological attributes (excessive guilt and perfectionism, feelings of worthlessness, etc.) as people with the psychogenic back pain that are the main target of his work.

  7. Certain behavioral treatments for chronic pain focus on reinforcing the occurrence of “non-pain behavior” and extinguishing the occurrence of “pain behavior.” Some studies, I believe, have also shown that people who go through this procedure not only act as though they experience less pain but also report that they subjectively do experience less pain. A major aspect of Sarno’s approach is that one should act as though one is not suffering from chronic pain. That, to me, seems a more likely cause for the improvement than outdated Freudian notions about repressed rage. The clever thing about this approach is that it suggest that simply giving people instructions to act as though they are not in pain may be, in some cases, be an effective treatment for pain.

  8. I’m pretty sceptical about a lot of things, but reading Sarno’s book helped me to eliminate lower back pain/sciatica a few years ago. The only drawback is that since then I’ve wasted time trying to use his method to get rid of ailments which have turned out *not* to have psychological origins.

  9. Thanks, Sentinel. I’m not sure if I should advise my hypersomniac friend to go to Sarno’s successor’s office for an appt or start by reading his book. But it’s very encouraging that he addressed CFS.

  10. CC, if your friend is interested in seeing the doc, note that he is heavily booked so better to contact him sooner rather than later. I think it’s common to just read the book, and perhaps see the doc if condition persists. But this might be more relevant if the patient wants to rule out a physical medical condition that might be causing the pain.

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