Why would our brain cause us pain | TMS | Dr John Sarno

Last Updated on October 19, 2020

Can pain be caused by our brains/mind rather than is due to physical factors such as muscle overuse, injuries or wrong posture? No, I am not saying that the pain is imaginary but could our brain switch up the functions of our body that result in real pain?

Recently I have discovered to my amazement the works of Dr John Sarno, a physician had an unconventional approach of treating acute, chronic and intense pain. Some patients went to him with MRIs and XRays of slip/ herniated disks which all specialists said would require operation.

But after conducting the necessary tests and ruling out any serious causes (example cancer), he would then proceed to declare that the condition is relatively benign. All the patient needed to do was to attend his lecture and perhaps his group discussions. His lecture details how their emotions could have caused the pain.

And almost as if a lightbulb were to go off in his patients’ head, they suddenly become pain free. Before you start to dismiss this as hocus pocus, please check out the Amazon reviews of one of his book, The Mindbody Prescription- Healing the Body, Healing the Pain from people that thanked him profusely for curing their pain. One guy had intense debilitating pain for 20 years and it was gone miraculously from just reading his book (refer to end of this page). Also, there are YouTube channels where people dedicate their YouTube channel to Dr Sarno to tell on how Dr Sarno had cured their pain and gave them their life back when all conventional treatments had failed. Don’t believe me? Just go to YouTube and search for “Dr Sarno TMS

Interview with Dr John Sarno

Below is an interview with Dr John Sarno posted by a YouTuber Paul Mabry.

I did  a little transcription from the YouTube video as I myself also wish to come back to revisit what he said without needing to go through the entire video. I hope this will benefit you as well. 

During the early years of his career, he found himself exposed to many people with bad pain. He used conventional diagnosis which was a great disappointments. He also noticed that the patients had other common symptoms that are known as mind body connection like digestive issues.

How our brain cause pain to our body
The brain does it to our body, believe it or not, is to protect us from emotions that are considered threatening or dangerous, such as intense anger to the point of rage. Or emotions that are too painful and unpleasant.

The brain knows if it gets you to focus on the pain, often the anger would not come out. So the strategy seemed to work.

The brain actually controls everything that goes on with the body. The brain simply decides to reduce the blood flow to the spinal nerve in the lower back area and it produce pain. It is very simple, benign and harmless because the degree of oxygen deprivation on that area is very minimal but it is enough to produce pain. And that is the heart of the matter.

It does the same with interfering normal functions in the body so that we have acid reflux. It does the same through interfering functions with our bowels so that we get irritable bowel symptoms. These are known as equivalents, and not a part of TMS (tension myositis syndrome). A lot of the pain that people experience in knees, elbows and shoulders turn out to be tendon pains due to TMS.

So many people had gotten better just by reading his books. Sometimes people give away the book and the pain just went away by reading the book and learning about it.

However there are more serious cases where people need to see a doctor and even do psychotherapy especially with health practitioners who specialise in TMS.

Do note that we cannot prove this by MRIs or tests. It is a matter of learning and through observation.

Common personality traits

According to Dr Sarno, he saw a consistent pattern of people coming to his office with pain. They are often:

  • Hardworking
  • Conscientious (always want to do the right thing)
  • Responsible
  • Expect a great deal out of themselves
  • The need to be very good people, helpful

These are good qualities so how could there be a problem?

It becomes a problem because it puts certain elements within us under pressure. More of it he said he would elaborate in his book.

There are external pressure but the pressure we put on ourselves are even greater. And the pressure results in intense anger. The main reason the symptoms surface is to ensure the anger does not come out.

The interviewer mentioned she had pain as she was working too much in the garden and there must be the pain. But Dr Sarno said that she got the pain not because she was working too much in the garden but because she was perfect and good. And what other pressures that is going on in her life.

He also mentioned that many people who think they may have a beautiful childhood, he believed that we carry away virtually something from our childhood. For example, why do we try to do so much and be perfect? Because we try to please our parents.

How was his work received in the medical community?
He was totally being ignored. Because what he said did not fit with contemporary medicine. Until the mid 1950s, doctors still believe in the role of emotions. After that, medicine has become very mechanical.

Treating pain in United States is a major thing in the industry where millions are being spent. The statistics still show that the problem is still as great despite lots of funds are being spent on research and treatment.

This is the realm of psychosomatic medicine and many people don’t understand. They think we are talking that they are crazy.

This is a public health problem of major magnitude. Dr Sarno is convinced that the only way he can do to make a difference is to continue to educate primary care physicians.
essentially benign after rule out cancer or more serious illness. And they should treat the patient themselves rather than sending them to the specialist because once you send to the specialist the patients are ‘gone’ (as specialist would suggest either drug treatment or surgery).

Usually he would see his patients, still run the preliminary test to role out anything serious, then require them to attend his lecture and perhaps a group discussion. That is all he does.

How about physical activities?
Yoga classes and other physical activities are okay but they are not going to cure you.
Must get out of the physical ballpark entirely and get into the psychology ballpark. And that is a very very important thing.

Denial of the syndrome is part of the syndrome. Your brain does not want to think it is psychological. It wants you to focus on your body.

He did have a patient that was 95% better, not completely cured. It means he still have a little work on himself to do. If there is a moment of doubt, it means the brain still need to continue the pain or the fear. Fears are often carried forward from childhood.

Another great saying “it is never too late to have a happy childhood”. Nobody can have the perfect childhood even with the best meaning parents.

Note: Sarno passed away on 22 June 2017 at 93 years old.

Very notable review:

There is a comment in the Amazon page by Cen Cal Reviewer called “No joke, I read this book and my back pain of 20 years is gone”

Okay, you’ve got to understand: I’m no fan of “woo” or new-agey alternative medicine, and this book is not that. I’m a diehard empiricist. Even so, what I’m going to tell you might sound weird.

Everyone, EVERYONE, who has had long-term back pain needs to read this book and try it out.

I had a back injury in 1993. It hurt off and on ever since. It disrupted my life and cost me a lot — in stress, in worry, in wasted time, not to mention in money (for doctors, pain meds, massage therapists, etc.). This pain was a significant part of my life — will I make it through okay on a long plane trip? Will it be okay to mop the floor? If I lie on my back to read a book for half an hour in bed, will I be miserable all day tomorrow? It affected my decisions every day.

A friend mentioned this book to me, and said she totally got rid of excruciating back pain. She is not a fan of “woo” either, so I took her seriously — and well, I’d tried everything else already. What would it hurt to buy a $10 book?

As it turns out, I’m one of those people — a not insignificant minority, it seems — who read the book and their back pain goes away (my friend said it took her a few months of dedicated work, and that’s pretty common too–but 80-some percent of people seem to get significant, lasting relief).

I read the book about three weeks ago, and have been pain-free ever since. You might be saying “big deal” …but I haven’t had a three-week pain-free stretch in 20 years. Also, even on days when my back didn’t actively hurt, certain places — such as my shoulders — were always stiff and sore if you touched them. That’s gone too. I keep pressing on my shoulders to show myself, “Wow this doesn’t hurt a bit.” This thing that plagued me for 20 years is gone.

Here’s what I think is good in the book:

1. Everyone knows that “stress” can affect you negatively. For example, people who suffer from chronic back pain or headaches often feel worse under stress. What I never considered, however, is that your own nervous system _creates_ physical responses. For example, when some people are embarrassed, they blush. Their blush is real — it’s not “in their head” — and they’re not blushing deliberately or in order to gain anything. Chronic back pain — real pain, which is not “in your head” and not something you’re exaggerating or fabricating — can arise from your nervous system in the same way as a blush, whether or not there’s anything “wrong” with your back. Just as a blush can arise in some people when they’re embarrassed, back pain can arise in some people when they’re “stressed” — and everyone is stressed every day. If you’re not stressed, you’re dead, right? Not everyone blushes, and not everyone has back pain, but people’s nervous systems can create physical responses from emotions.

2. Sarno points out that injuries do heal. People break a bone, it heals, and they’re fine. People sprain an ankle, it heals and they’re fine. Once my back injury healed (20 years or so ago), there was no reason for it to hurt anymore, other than my own nervous system using a familiar “route” to cause pain. Then the question is, Why?

3. The author points out that many people with chronic back pain are the “nice guys” of the world. People with chronic pain are often very conscientious, do-gooder, perfectionistic, or self-sacrificing types. If it’s associated with a certain type of personality, that’s a red flag right there that something other than an “injury” is going on. A lot of people with chronic back pain also have a history of having been abused as children. What do these two types of people have in common? They tend to deny or minimize or not notice their own feelings. They are the types to say, “Sure I’ll help you move a piano at two a.m. on Christmas in a blizzard.” They don’t even notice that maybe a small part of themselves would rather not move the piano.

4. The author speculates that all this do-gooding and self-denial and ignoring-of-one’s-own-feelings and needs (whether it’s your personality type, or whether you were raised in an abusive home, or both) also creates a constant pool of underlying “rage” (his word, which he uses a lot) from the part of ourselves that doesn’t want to move pianos. Here’s where it gets speculative. Somehow your body transforms this unacknowledged feeling into pain (just as “somehow” the body transforms someone’s embarrassment into a blush).

5. The author also speculates that the pain serves as a distractor. Of COURSE you aren’t wild about moving the piano! Your back is killing you! That’s a socially acceptable reason to admit to yourself that you don’t want to move the piano. Of course, you’ll probably move it anyway. (By the way, the author rejects the notion of “secondary gain” — i.e., the idea that people with chronic pain use it to get certain benefits like attention or sympathy. He believes the pain serves both as a distraction from emotional pain, and an outlet for / substitute for emotional pain you’re not feeling.)

6. Something I found interesting is that people in certain times and places seem to have certain mindbody disorders that are approved by their society as being “real” things with physical causes. In Victorian times there was a lot of mysterious paralysis, but it went out of fashion once people knew more about the body and that it didn’t “really” work that way. In the 1990s there was a lot of carpal tunnel, even though computers were probably easier to use (easier on the wrists) than, say, old manual typewriters where you had to bang the keys. There’s a whole lot of back pain today, which often lasts years beyond an injury, and which is remarkably unresponsive to treatments and surgeries, but the medical community supports the idea that an injury you sustained 20 years ago can be hurting you today, so everyone believes that chronic back pain has a physical cause, just as everyone once believed in the paralysis in Victorian times. Almost everyone (like me) can point to an “injury” that triggered their back pain, but unlike ever other injury we’ve ever had, it doesn’t get better. It’s pretty odd, once you think about it, but everyone — from doctors to physical therapists to chiropractors to massage therapists to other people with back pain — reinforce the idea that it’s related to a physical injury and there’s very little you can do about it. This belief is extremely powerful and helps perpetuate the pain.

7. What I like most of all: I read the book, I thought about all this stuff, I decided his description fit me perfectly (my personality, the type of pain, the length of time, etc. etc.), and once I knew there was likely nothing actually “wrong” with my back, it’s like the game was up. My brain gave up trying to use that as a strategy. The back pain went away, including the permanent tightness in my neck and shoulders, including the shooting excruciating nerve pain down my leg for which I was being medicated.

It. Went. Away. I’m off the medication. I’m doing whatever I want. I’m lying on my back for hours every night reading my books. I’m bending however I want. Etc. No problem.

I can never do this book justice. There’s a lot more, about MRIs, about people with and without bulging discs, arthritis etc., about people who are told they have to do this or that with physical therapy, “or else” (which is pretty much reinforcing the notion that there’s something terribly wrong, although plenty of people have bulging discs and arthritic changes and never have a day of back pain). You just have to read it, to see whether it fits you too. If you’ve had back pain for years, it probably does.

Here’s what I’m not wild about.

1. The book seems very psychoanalytic to me — to me, needlessly so. It talks a lot about “rage” and you might not be a person who really perceives that you’re feeling “rage” (I’m not). But on the other hand, the book “works” so I’m not sure that anyone necessarily needs to accept a psycholanalytic explanation. I’m a nice-guy self-denier who probably, if I’m really honest with myself, truly loves to help people but doesn’t enjoy moving pianos at 2 a.m.

For me, all I had to do is, every time my back started to twinge, ask myself to think hard about what I’m feeling, what’s bothering me. I say it to myself — I don’t even have to go around refusing to move people’s pianos. I just have to say to myself something like “I really don’t like getting up at 2 a.m. to move pianos. I would rather stay in bed. I wish there was some other time — not on Christmas, not during a blizzard — when we could move the damn piano.” I just acknowledge to myself that a part of me feels that way. I also ask my brain to stop my back from hurting, and it does. Then I go about my business. But there’s no need for a psychoanalytic explanation, in my opinion, any more than there’s a need for a psychoanalytic explanation for a blush or a phantom limb pain.

We don’t have to understand it for it to work. Gravity always “worked” whether or not we understood it. Apparently checking in with your own emotions, acknowledging them, and asking your brain to stop sending pain messages also works. I don’t quite understand it, but — like gravity — it’s very powerful.

So — like every other idea you encounter in life: Take what works for you, and leave the rest. I’ve read a bunch of other good books on this topic now too, by this author and others. My favorite so far is Unlearn Your Pain by Howard Schubiner. Only the first five chapters is available on Kindle, though, and I’ve ordered a hard copy of the rest of the book, so I can’t review the whole thing yet.

I wish every doctor who sees patients with back pain would read this book. I wish everyone with persistent back pain would read this book and give the ideas a try. I wish tons of research were being done on this phenomenon. I wish I had come across this book 20 years ago.

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