From the NY Times, here's another testimonial to the curative power of John Sarno's psychological approach to back pain:
For more than a decade, I had a near-constant throbbing in my left piriformis, a small muscle deep in the butt. I tried treating it with physical therapy, ultrasound and Botox injections. At one point, I even considered surgery to cut the muscle in half in order to decompress the sciatic nerve that runs underneath.
Then, in 2011, I picked up a library copy of the 1991 best seller “Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection.” It claimed that, in order to distract the sufferer from repressed anxiety, anger or feelings of inferiority, the brain creates pain in the neck, shoulders, back and butt by decreasing blood flow to the muscles and nerves.
The book’s author, Dr. John Sarno, was a rehabilitation physician at New York University and something of an evangelist, touting a methodology bolstered by anecdotes from his practice and passionate testimonials from patients like Howard Stern or Larry David, who described his recovery from back pain as “the closest thing that I’ve ever had in my life to a religious experience.”
According to Dr. Sarno, nearly all chronic pain is caused by repressed emotions. By undergoing psychotherapy or journaling about them, he said, you could drag them out of your unconscious — and cure yourself without drugs, surgery or special exercises. I chose journaling and began writing pages-long lists of everything I was angry, insecure or worried about.
I appreciated the tidy logic of Dr. Sarno’s theory: emotional pain causes physical pain. And I liked the reassurance it gave me that even though my pain didn’t stem from a wonky gait or my sleeping position, it was real. I didn’t like that no one in the medical community seemed to side with Dr. Sarno, or that he had no studies to back up his program.
But I couldn’t deny it worked for me. After exorcising a diary’s worth of negative feelings over four months, I was — in spite of my incredulousness — cured.
Of course this doesn't mean Sarno's method really cured our author; believing that if you get better, the last thing you tried must have cured you, is medieval medical thinking. Sometimes chronic conditions get better on their own.
But then this is equally true of surgery. As I have mentioned here before, I have two acquaintances who swear that disk repair surgery magically cured them from years of terrible back pain. But since large-scale studies show that, on average, disk repair surgery does little good, who knows?
Back pain is really complicated. It is much more common among people who have experienced a trauma in their lives like divorce or job loss. It is more common in economically depressed areas. And yet it strikes some happy people whose lives seem as good as anyone else's. It is, as some people say, a "bio-social-psychological" condition.
But to deny that pain has a psychological component, to believe that even mentioning psychological factors is some kind of insult, is unhelpful. Our brains are part of our bodies, exquisitely connected to every other part of us, bound together in ways that sometimes mystify us but are very much real.