Books as Medicine

Last week I heard on BBC radio that the National Health Service in England is instructing doctors to prescribe self-help books.  The radio presenter seemed a little aghast at this idea and pressed a doctor by asking something along the lines of,  “So you’re saying that you think that people will respond well to a doctor basically telling them that their problems are all in their head and that they should just go read a book about it”.  The doctor calmly responded, “No, if it’s presented in that manner I doubt it would go over very well.  Instead a doctor might say,  ‘After examining you and listening to you discuss your symptoms I feel that you may get some benefit from reading this book.  Clinical studies have show that reading certain books can have a tremendously positive effect on health.  If this doesn’t help then come back to see me and we’ll arrange an appointment with a specialist’.  If it’s put this way I think that the patient can see the value in this approach”.

 As a filmmaker working on a project about Dr. John E. Sarno this made perfect sense to me.  His books, including “Healing Back Pain” have demonstrated a profound ability to act as a healing tool.  The reviews on Amazon confirm this idea in a profound way.   The following is a randomly selected review by “Ross”.

I was a sceptic but had nothing else to lose after 8 years of on and off re-occuring back pain. Had every therapy known to man apart from surgery ( was advised to but was not keen) so thought why not give this book a go. It took me about 4 months of reading, re-reading and convincing myself but……. the pain suddenly just disappeared and I have been virtually pain free for 3 years now. When I get a twinge, which is maybe twice a year, I just think about the cause and it disappears. May not work for everyone but hell of a lot cheaper than all those chiro , stretching, acupuncture sessions!

There are also a handful of negative reviews.  Out of the 572 reviews 441 are (5 )star overwhelmingly positive reviews and 44 are (1) star reviews.

Sarno’s thesis, that repressed rage and anxiety cause back pain in almost EVERY case, is ridiculous, unsupported mushy thinking. Just the fact that he lumps all kinds of other pain syndromes such as fibromyalgia and TMJ and bursitis under his umbrella of Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS) should be a tip off that his theories are vague and unsupported by scientific rigor. Yes, we all have some repressed rage and some anxiety in our psychological makeup, so it is easy to “see one’s self” in his typical patient profile. And yes, there surely is a Mind-Body Connection, but Sarno’s work doesn’t offer any original thinking or even a cogent explanation of what we currently know about this topic. A well-meaning friend sent this book to me. I have had 4 surgeries for a very painful, ongoing degenerative condition. Frankly, I was insulted by this book.

While Dr. Sarno is often faulted for not doing more research on his methodology, the anecdotal data from these responses shows a powerfully positive effect.  Of the people who read the book and felt compelled to write about it, approximately 90% of them felt it had cured them of their pain.

In a nutshell, Dr. Sarno, after years of working with patients, came to realize that the structurally based medicine he had been taught was not very helpful in treating the patients who came to him with pain.  After looking at his patients records he realized that the vast majority of them had a history of suffering from illnesses that had a strong psychosomatic basis like ulcers, migraines, colitis, and other issues.  He found that helping his patients to recognize that the source of their pain was likely related to their stress had a powerful healing effect.  His books are based on years of working with patients and the stories in the book are a way for people to connect with their own stories of pain.  Repeatedly people say things like, “I saw myself on every page.”

While he had great success with patients he had much less convincing other physicians.  However, over the last few years a number of other books have begun to come out that speak about the mind body connection in relation to other ailments.  Dr. David Clarke, a gastroenterologist, has written a compelling account of how he came to realize that many of the people he was treating for stomach issues were suffering from repressed emotions.  When he helped them figure out what was bothering them their pain went away.  His book is called, “They Can’t Find Anything Wrong”.  He also set up the website where he details much of the information in the book.  Again, a quick look at the reviews for the book detail that he is clearly on to something.

Gabor Mate, after working as a family physician for 25 years, came to see that certain personality traits were common in his patients who developed serious illnesses.  Like the patients that Dr. Sarno and Dr. Clarke describe, these people had a tendency to ignore their own needs an instead take great pains to take care of others.  He talks about these patients in “When the Body Says No“.  Again, the response to the book has been tremendously positive, supporting the idea that books can help people to heal.

As a rapidly reforming “goodist” who has great trouble saying “no” to others I have found all of these books extremely useful in gaining a greater understanding of my own mind body connection.   Like many other people who struggle with these issues I also found that “The Great Pain Deception” by Steven Ozanich to be very useful.  His personal account of his epic battle with pain uses the power of storytelling to help others connect to their own stories of pain.


Lastly, in addition to his amazing articles, I have found all of Jonah Lehrer’s books, “Proust was a Neuroscientist”, “How We Decide”, and “Imagine” incredibly useful in helping me to understand how the mind and body work together.  In fact those who have come to understand the relationship between mind and body have begun to use the term mindbody, because the idea of a division between the two only makes it that much more difficult for us to understand how it works.  While Mr. Lehrer does not approach his work from the perspective of healing, his powerful illustrations of how the mind works powerfully supports the arguments of these health care practioners and patients.

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