My daughter suffers from a rare type of headache called Ice Pick headaches, or in other words, idiosyncratic – meaning, doctors have no idea what to do about them or why they happen. We are on a journey to help find the root cause and help her to heal.
We have seen various types of doctors, and I mean many, and have tried to heal her in various ways. All the while my husband is having intermittent back pain over the past several years and a friend of his suggested he read the book, Healing Back Pain by John Sarno. After my husband read the book, he recommended that I read it before moving forward with our next steps on our medical journey to heal our daughter’s ice pick headaches, which included acupuncture and seeing a gastroenterologist. So this book review is given from the eyes of a mother trying to do just that – heal her daughter’s headaches, not necessarily her back pain. Nonetheless, the book’s content was relevant in more ways that I could have imagined.
The author of the book is a physician who has had it with traditional medicine’s way of healing back pain. He has seen misdiagnosis all too often due to misunderstandings of what is really going on with the patient. Doctors are taught in medical school that the issue is due to structural abnormalities in the body. However, Sarno was seeing that there was no correlation in his patients between the physical output of the pain to the diagnosis and traditional treatments, which were simply not effective. This turned him in a direction that defined the rest of his career, as he developed the theory that back pain was caused by TMS, or, Tension Myositis Syndrome.
In this book, Sarno discusses his theory that TMS is a syndrome in which the disorder is benign, because there is nothing physical causing the back pain. He goes into length theorizing that any physiological abnormality stems entirely from a person’s emotional process. TMS, in medical terms, is defined as a change of state in the muscle that is painful. Pain from this condition can show up in muscles, nerves, tendons and ligaments, all brought on by tension. Essentially, the mind causes the pain.
In this book, his focus is on TMS of the back, neck and shoulder muscles that lead to typical back pain. He notes, after careful diagnostic tests to rule out cancer, tumors, bone disease, and other serious diseases, TMS is the cause of most physical ailments, not just back pain. He provides several examples throughout the book that showcase the psychological role played in physical disorders in human biology.
This book theorizes that the root cause of our emotional instability that causes the physical TMS pain, is repressed emotional energy. It is our tendency as humans to not feel these painful emotional responses, so as a defense, the body releases the repressed emotions through physical pain, thus causing the TMS symptoms to begin.
Sarno goes on to discuss common structural diagnoses given by doctors to explain the pain and gives his evidence and explanation as to why they are not only incorrect, but over used. He gives many observations he has experienced while practicing, throwing doubt on these diagnoses. Further, he gives compelling statistics of his TMS diagnosis and positive treatment outcomes. He has found that recurring symptoms and failure to treat the pain successfully are characteristics of TMS.
Since psychology plays a huge part in TMS, the following are all unconscious triggers due to the repressed emotions: low self-esteem, anxiety, anger, narcissism, and so much more. The magnitude of the emotional issue directly determines the magnitude and type of symptoms our brain chooses. The book speculates that our subconscious is an equally strong force in bringing these emotions to consciousness, as well as suppressing them. Finally, Sarno discusses our need for defense mechanisms, which include headaches, ulcers, constipation and many other common ailments, as the expression of our body’s need to find a release for the emotions that have been repressed.
This book mentions that it’s in our unconscious state where these repressed issues lay and we are not even aware of them. In fact, he goes on to say that when we find out what they are, through his proposed method of psychological healing, we are often surprised at what we find. Treatment consists of listening and learning about TMS and how the subconscious is handling our emotional pain. The two main objectives of the treatment are based around knowledge and then changing the brain’s behavior by acting on that knowledge. It’s about knowing, and accepting, that our brains are causing us pain. When we find out what it is that is bothering us emotionally, we can then begin to heal. He notes that some, but not all, patients suffering from TMS have to go through therapy to help work through the psychological issues. In fact, he notes, only a small percentage actually have to go through therapy.
TMS is definitely an interesting diagnosis, theory and concept. Sarno mentions similar theories other people from various professions have presented with evidence along the same lines of physical disorders having a psychological basis. He has written many published medical papers on this topic. Unfortunately, Sarno’s theories have been rejected by most doctors as difficult to apply using the contemporary medical dogma of our day. Sarno states that one of the issues blocking acceptance of his theories is the fact that most physicians do not accept that emotions play a significant role in causing physical disorders. Sarno wrote this book hoping to reach younger, more open-minded medical students with his holistic, mind-body treatment of back pain, as well as to encourage those who suffer from the pain, to consider an alternative approach. He further states that TMS, in all its forms, even beyond back pain, is a public health problem that needs to be addressed and won’t be until the medical perception of the cause is altered. Therefore, his last goal of the book is to raise awareness to this reality.