The Start of Holiday Back Pain Season Begins This Week.

The Start of Holiday Back Pain Season Begins This Week.

The author on a friend's shoulders during Thanksgiving in 1977

The author on a friend’s shoulders during Thanksgiving in 1977

Family holidays are one of the most stressful times of the year, so it’s a good time to think about the connection between this kind of stress and back pain, before you find yourself on the bedroom floor of your childhood home, screaming in agony because your back went out. According to the Institute of medicine, “Chronic pain affects about 100 million American adults—more than the total affected by heart disease, cancer, and diabetes combined. Pain also costs the nation up to $635 billion each year in medical treatment and lost productivity.” That figure dwarfs almost all other health care costs combined. The report ads, “Pain represents a national challenge. A cultural transformation is necessary to better prevent, assess, treat, and understand pain of all types.” According to Dr. John Sarno, recognizing the role of repressed emotions in causing pains syndromes is central to that transformation.

Anyone who has ever struggled with pain can tell you that it gets worse when they are stressed out. According to Dr. Sarno, who recently retired after over 50 years at NYU Medical Center, “Everyone is under the impression, and they are being encouraged by the medical profession, to think that there is some structural abnormality responsible for the pain, when in reality, the tremendous paradox is that the most important reason statistically for the pain, is what’s going on in their lives, and the pressures that they put themselves under to be perfect and good. It’s knowledge that is the cure here. I tell [patients] what’s going on and lo and behold, it stops hurting.”

When Dr. John E. Sarno began working at the Rusk Institute at NYU in the early 1960’s, standard care for back pain involved bed rest, alternating hot and cold packs, and physical therapy. He became frustrated when many of his patients failed to improve, so he began to look more closely at their charts and found that over 80% of them had a history of two more mind body related illnesses in which the repression of emotions was thought to be a causative factor, including ulcers, excema, migraines, colitis, and anxiety/depression. He quickly realized that this emotional stress might also be related to the back pain. When he talked with his patients further, he found that many of them put themselves under great pressure to be perfect and good. He pointed out to them that perhaps they were unconsciously angry about having to live up to such high expectations. While some rejected this idea, he quickly saw that those who accepted it began to improve rapidly. Over the next several decades, he developed an understanding of the problem and eventually published four books on the subject, including the bestseller Healing Back Pain, which after 25 years is still a #1 best seller in the back pain genre. Howard Stern has credited Dr. Sarno with saving his life, and patients Larry David, John Stossel and Senator Tom Harkin sing his praises. However, despite great success in treating patients, as well as the runaway success of his books, his ideas have not been embraced by the medical community.

In the last several years, reams of data have emerged that support his theories. There have been dozens of studies that illustrate that the “structural abnormalities” that we are so often shown on MRI’s are unlikely to be the cause of pain; equal numbers of people who have these abnormalities have no pain whatsoever. Further, many studies have emerged that detail a very powerful connection between stress and illness. Our minds and bodies are not separate entities, but instead a fully integrated system. So, this holiday season, try to listen to that first twinge in your back, and remind yourself that you are a good person. Forgive your parents and siblings for the pressure that you feel they put you under, and then forgive yourself. A little empathy goes a long way.

1 Comment
  • Diane Gibbs
    Posted at 19:11h, 21 November Reply

    Yes! Great article and wonderful reminder!
    Sharing this since it’s so very hard to explain..
    Maybe someone who is ready to learn about Dr. Sarno and TMS will read it!
    Happy (pain free) Hols!!

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