Healing Back Pain, by Dr. John Sarno (former doctor to Howard Stern) is one of the fundamental books on the subject of TMS (Tension Myositis Syndrome) and mind-body illness and pain.
Healing Back Pain is a book that I recommend to everyone – regardless of if you struggle with back pain or you simply know someone who struggles with chronic pain or illness. Once you understand the fundamentals of how TMS operates in the body, you will be able to apply the knowledge and principles to a never-ending list of physical issues that may present themselves as acute and chronic.
My Experience with Healing Back Pain:
Discovering Healing Back Pain was the “ah ha” moment that I had been searching for over the course of ten years of pain and illness. I’m a firm believer that everything happens right on time and Healing Back Pain was no exception.
Why it resonated with me:
- It describes personality types that were most likely to suffer from chronic pain and illness. It described me exactly (see TMS traits).
- Dr. Sarno details the psychology and emotions associated with pain and how those emotions are being interpreted by the body as a protection mechanism.
- He outlines the feedback loop that is causing physical pain or weakness and explains how TMS involves muscles, nerves, tendons and ligaments.
- It is quantitative. Dr. Sarno does an excellent job of laying out specific examples and also a broad outlook on his overall statistics. Comparing his success rates with those of a pain management clinic or chiropractor, I felt like I had nothing to lose by applying his practices because the alternatives aren’t very good.
- It is hard to argue with Dr. Sarno’s success rates:
- 88% little to no pain
- 10% improved
- 2% unchanged
- He busts the myths that our backs are weak and helps readers to understand why there is no reason to fear a bad MRI. He explains why degeneration, bulging disks, spinal stenosis and other physical back issues are nothing to be afraid of and how degeneration is a normal process.
- He provides specific (and easy) steps so you can start putting his methods into action.
- He applies the principles of TMS to other health conditions such as growing pains, carpel tunnel, headaches & dizziness, allergies, gastrointestinal issues, feminine pain, warts and acne, cancer, immune system issues, infectious disease, heart issues and other medical challenges.
It’s an easy read, so I read it.
I had nothing to lose and everything to gain.
- Pain is caused by mild oxygen deprivation, caused by repressed emotions, notably anger.
- TMS serves to distract from emotional pain by providing something physical to focus on.
- To cure TMS, it’s not necessary to change one’s emotions or personality –you simply need to recognize that they exist and that the brain is trying to keep you from being aware of their existence (aka “safe”) through the mechanism of the pain syndrome.
- Resolving pain through Dr. Sarno’s method is different than the placebo effect because the pain doesn’t come back. It may pop up in a different spot or manifest in a different way, but once you catch it again, it will again go away.
It takes time to retrain your brain to process and feel emotions.
If your brain is accustomed to repressing feelings for an extended period of time, it stands to reason that resolving pain or illness may take some time.
Core emotions of TMS:
- Low self-esteem
My Experience with Healing Back Pain:
After reading the book, my awareness started to shift. I started noticing the impact that my emotions were having on my physical body and thought patterns. Specifically, the emotions of anger, rage and fear. Before reading the book, I would never own up to being an angry person – frustrated, maybe, but certainly not angry. Anger is not an emotion that nice Christian girls feel – and they certainly aren’t allowed to feel those sorts of negative feelings.
After about six weeks, I started noticing some subtle shifts. It was the first time in 20 years that back pain and tension in my neck, shoulders and upper back started to ease up.
At that point, I was able to slowly cut back on Tramadol, which I relied on daily for ten years to help with back pain so that I could sleep. I had been unsuccessfully trying to get off of Tramadol for many years. Once the pain started to loosen its grip a little bit, I was able to start cutting my pills in half to take a little less. Then I started forgetting if I even had taken one at all. This was completely unheard of.
It took six months from the time I read the book, until I was off of Tramadol. Stressful situations (hello COVID!) would cause minor flare-ups where I might take half a tablet a week. After ten years of unrelenting, chronic back pain, I called that a win. Today, I do not take any Tramadol, even if I have a pain flare-up – I don’t need it because I know what the cause is, as well as the solution.
Why does back pain in the developed world seem to be getting worse?
We have more sophisticated imaging systems, diagnostic machines, medications, treatments, surgeries and information than ever before. Yet, back pain is the number one cause of disability worldwide and costs Americans at least $50 billion per year in treatments. Back pain accounts for more than 264 million lost workdays in one year—that’s two workdays for every full-time worker in the country.
Add these statistics on top of the more than 153 million opioid prescriptions were dispensed in 2019, many for back pain… the system is not working.
We go to the doctors and they fill our hearts and minds with fear. Fear that our backs or bodies are breaking. Fear that we will injure ourselves. Fear that our bodies are failing us. We are given a diagnosis (or several) and they tell us that we are going to live with these conditions forever… It ends up being a self-fulfilling prophesy because we buy it, hook, line and sinker.
What’s the solution?
After participating in TMS groups with hundreds of individuals and witnessing the thoughts, emotions and feelings coming out of their stories, I am more convinced than ever that chronic pain and illness is not a disease. It’s a mindset brought on (often by trauma) that gets activated by everyday life and doctors (or family members) with good intentions.
In the modern world, mind-body illness is still often viewed with disapproval – as a mental illness – it’s something that patients have brought on themselves. But the truth of the matter is that people who are chronically ill or in pain are not mentally ill. They are survivors (people) who have lived through any number of situations that have put their brains into hyperdrive. Their bodies are doing the very best that they can. The more compassion and awareness that we can have about ourselves, our bodies and others, the more we can finally heal.
Dr. Sarno has other hugely popular books – most notably, The Mind Body Prescription. Same concepts, but different framing. It focuses less on back pain and more on other manifestations of TMS and goes a little deeper into the mind-body connection.
Common equivalents of TMS
- Preulcer states
- Peptic ulcer
- Hiatus hernia
- Spastic colon
- Hay fever
- Tension headache
- Migraine headache
- Acne, hives
- Ringing in the ears
- Frequent urination