The late Dr John Sarno, MD, was considered to be quite a maverick by the medical establishment. Over the last few decades of his life, his research and practice into the causes and cures of backache led him to the remarkable viewpoint that MOST of the body’s aches and pains were caused by EMOTIONAL ISSUES, and not physical wear-and-tear on the body.
Despite running a number of well-designed clinical trials which proved his thesis, and despite having thousands and thousands of ‘cured’ patients that the medical establishment had pretty much given up on, his peers in Western medicine still regarded Dr Sarno as something of a lunatic.
I mean, everyone knows that backaches (and hip aches, and neck aches and a few other things besides) only happen because of a physical cause or accident. The person strained themselves, stretched themselves, bent down funny, herniated a disk, wore-out a hip bone… Case closed, there’s nothing more to discuss.
Except…Western medicine is plain wrong on that score, as I’ve been going on about for years’ now, not least in a couple of my books: Talk to God and Fix Your Health: The Real Reasons Why We Get Sick and How to Stay Healthy, and How Your Emotions Are Making You Sick.
Chinese medicine and other reputable energy medicine practices like applied kinesiology have been making the link between ‘emotions’ and ‘physical health’ for millennia. But Western medicine, with its frankly lunatic need to see human beings as chemical compositions and bits of animated meat, has been so ‘anti’ the idea that a person’s emotions, or spiritual dimension, has anything to do with their physical health, that even medical doctors touting excellent research can’t really persuade them otherwise.
So, what is it that Dr Sarno actually says about it all?
(The best thing is to go and read one of his books, like ‘Healing back pain: the mind-body connection’, but let’s see if I can sum it up for you below).
CHRONIC BACK PAIN IS NOT USUALLY CAUSED BY STRUCTURAL PROBLEMS
First, he identified that in nearly all cases chronic back pain was NOT being caused by herniated disks, slipped disks, dissolving disks or other ‘structural’ issues. He discovered that in nearly all cases, a person’s back pain started up in response to some sort of notable stress, that got ‘somatized’ as back pain.
Somatization basically means that the human brain takes a big emotional pain that it doesn’t really want to deal with or face on the conscious level, and turns it into a physical pain instead.
He discovered that people were having massive attacks of debilitating back pain after having enormous problems at work, or in their marriages and families, or when someone they loved died, or when they were facing enormous financial issues, to name some of the most common reasons.
He also discovered that a particular type of person, one that he characterized as being ‘a worrier, overly-conscientious and responsible, compulsive and perfectionist’ was distinctly more prone to chronic and severe physical aches and pains.
But that still didn’t answer the question of HOW the body was transforming these ‘emotional pains’ into physical pains, which is the next question Dr Sarno set out to answer. He came up with what I’ll call a ‘Western Medical’ description of the problem, and identified a syndrome that he called Tension Myoneural Syndrome, or TMS for short.
He discovered that TMS could affect three different types of tissue:
He also discovered that most patients - 40% in one survey he conducted - believed that their chronic back pain began thanks to some sort of fall or physical accident that had happened a long time ago.
Sarno began to take issue with this belief, because as he notes in his book:
“Our body parts tend to heal very quickly when they are injured. Even the largest bone in the body, the femur, only takes six weeks to heal. And during that process, there is pain for only a very short time. It’s illogical to think that an injury that occurred two months ago might still be causing pain, not to mention one or two or ten years ago. And yet people have been so thoroughly indoctrinated with the idea of persistent injury that they accept it without question.”
So Sarno started to look for an alternative explanation for what was causing the feeling of pain. After many years of exploring the question, he came to the conclusion that oxygen deprivation and the autonomic nervous system (ANS) was at the root of the problem.
UNDERSTANDING THE AUTONOMIC NERVOUS SYSTEM (ANS)
The autonomic nervous system, or ANS, is controlled by the primitive part of the brain that is responsible for all of the body’s involuntary functions, like breathing, digestion, heart-rate, sleep and - yes you guessed it! - the fight / flight / freeze / fawn stress response that I like to write so much about here, on spiritual self-help.
Sarno realized that the ANS controls the body’s blood flow - with exquisite, detailed precision - increasing and decreasing the blood flow to whatever part of the body it wishes.
When a part of the body gets less blood flow than it should- something that’s called ischemia in Western medical parlance - it also gets less oxygen. When human tissue gets lets oxygen than it requires, that causes a whole bunch of physical symptoms like pain, numbness, tingling and weakness.
Sarno identified that repressed anger and repressed anxiety were the main emotions causing the ANS to pull the ‘oxygen deprivation’ stunt in the body (and it’s no coincidence that these are the main emotions traumatized people try to repress, as discussed in detail in other posts.)
WHAT TYPES OF PHYSICAL CONDITIONS COULD BE TRACED TO TMS / EMOTIONAL CAUSES?
Next, Sarno identified some of the most common ‘illnesses’ that he believed were also being caused by a TMS / oxygen deprivation response to emotional triggers. As well as straight-up ‘pain’, these also included:
He also identified a number of ‘diagnoses’ that were usually given by medical doctors to ‘explain’ much of the pain his patients were experiencing as a result of the emotional-based problem of TMS, including:
Herniated discs, pinched nerves, the Facet Syndrome, arthritis of the spine, transitional verterbra, spondylosis, spina bifida occulta, spondylolisthesis, scoliosis, osteoarthritis of the hip, chondromalacia, bone spurs, bursitis, tendonitis, coccydynia, neuroma, plantar fasciitis, mononeuritis multiplex, Temporomandibular Joint Syndrome (TMJ), inflammation, and soft tissue disorders including fibromyalgia (fibrositis, myofibrositis and myofasciitis).
Yes, these things may be observed in the body, but Sarno stressed again and again: this isn’t what’s causing the pain!!! The pain was coming from unresolved emotional issues that the brain was ‘hiding’ away as a physical pain problem via decreased blood flow / reduced oxygenation.
SO, WHAT’S THE CURE?
This next part of the story is my favorite bit. Sarno discovered that the main cure for his patients’ many forms of chronic pain was simply to understand that the unconscious mind was using them to ‘hide’ some sort of emotional pain, usually related to repressed anger and / or repressed anxiety.
In Sarno’s experience, even just two hours of ‘education’ about the emotional causes of their pain was enough to actually permanently ‘cure’ the problem - with the proviso that his patients HAD to believe in the diagnosis that the root of their pain was emotional, and not structural.
And his success rates were phenomenal!
In one study done in 1987 with a group of 109 patients who’d all been clearly diagnosed with ‘herniated disk’, 88 percent reported that they were ‘free, or nearly free of pain’ and enjoying unrestricted physical activity, 10 percent said they were ‘improved, with some pain, and some restricted activity’ and 2 per cent - the two that had the most severe and persistent psychological issues - reported no change.
WHY DOES JUST KNOWING THE PROBLEM IS EMOTIONAL CURE THE PAIN?
Sarno was of the view that the unconscious mind was using physical pain to ‘divert attention’ away from emotions that the person felt overwhelmed by, or didn’t want to face or acknowledge. As soon as the patient ‘blew the cover’ of the physical pain by accepting that it was caused by an emotional issue (usually repressed anger or repressed anxiety) - the body could no longer use the physical pain as a diversion tactic, so it quickly stopped doing it.
Again, his books are full of letters from the thousands and thousands of people who Sarno successfully treated with this approach, most of whom had completely exhausted every other avenue of help and relief.
THE LAST WORD: SURGERY AS A PLACEBO EFFECT
As a last word, I just wanted to mention Sarno’s conviction that most surgery for these conditions - when it worked - was simply because it was acting as a sort of ‘placebo’ affect for the patient.
He reported that while many of his patients experienced some sort of temporary relief from their original pain (in those cases where it actually worked), typically the pain or problem would resurface in some other area, as the unconscious mind continued its diversion tactics to keep the person away from painful and overwhelming negative emotions.
Again, there’s so much to say about this subject but for now, I recommend that people take a look at Dr Sarno’s books for themselves (and maybe also the two I authored, mentioned above) and next time they have one of the physical issues listed here, to take a deep breath and ask themselves:
What am I angry or anxious about, that maybe I'm finding it hard to admit?