In a 2018 article for Vox, Julia Belluz explores the legacy of Dr. John Sarno, who argued that back pain was actually the result of a psychosomatic process and emotional factors.
Dr. John Sarno was beloved by his patients but derided by his medical peers for his theories, which were largely based on direct patient treatments. He admitted that he never tested his ideas with controlled studies, saying he’d rather spend his time healing patients at his New York University practice than doing research.
At first glance, he seemed like an outdated Freudian. But after digging a little deeper, Belluz learned that some of Sarno’s theories are now being validated by science.
Specifically, that there can sometimes be an emotional basis for chronic back pain. Sarno believed our brain used pain to distract us from experiencing negative emotions. Doctors have overwhelmingly failed people with back pain, with many popular treatments being ineffective in the majority of cases. The medical establishment is now beginning to suggest people explore alternatives for their sore backs.
Sarno’s theory was that when we experience negative emotions, like anger, stress, or anxiety, our brain distracts us from these emotions by creating pain. Instead of addressing the root cause of these negative emotions, we focus on the pain, which can become chronic and debilitating.
Sarno also believed that pain was created by reduced oxygen and blood flow to the muscles and nerves, which was triggered by stress.
Sarno’s approach to treating back pain involved educating his patients about his theory and encouraging them to talk about their emotions and confront the underlying psychological issues that might be causing their pain. He also recommended that his patients continue to be active and not limit their physical activity or take time off work.
Despite criticism from the medical community, Sarno’s approach resonated with many patients who had been struggling with chronic back pain for years. His books, including “Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection,” became bestsellers, and he developed a devoted following of patients who credit him with curing their back pain.
However, Sarno’s belief that back pain is solely caused by emotional factors remains controversial in some elements of the medical community.
Despite this, Sarno’s legacy lives on, with many patients still turning to his books and methods for chronic back pain.
His work also serves as a reminder that, despite advances in medical science, the mind-body connection and the impact of emotions on physical health are still not fully understood.