People suffering from back pain seldom refer to their doctor in the same glowing terms as those who claim their lives were saved–not just changed, but saved–by the late Dr. John Sarno, author of “Healing Back Pain” and the subject of a powerful documentary co-directed by independent filmmaker Michael Galinsky, and edited by his wife, Suki Hawley. Dr. Sarno’s patients recover so dramatically that many of them say it is akin to regaining their lives.
Unfortunately, many stories about chronic pain do not end very well. People seeking medical help have been left disappointed and some are even worse off than before, with many becoming addicted to opioids. We’ve heard a lot about what does not work; the question is, when will the public hear about what does work? How long must we stay in the realm of coping and managing, and never actually healing?
“All the Rage” depicts Dr. Sarno’s struggle to have his theory on mind-body healing acknowledged by a medical community that completely ignores him for over 40 years. During that time he manages to circumvent the establishment by writing books for the general public and curing thousands of patients and countless readers in the process. He also predicted that due to widespread misdiagnoses, we would see a chronic pain epidemic someday.
The number of people who know about Dr. Sarno is still miniscule in contrast to the great number in chronic pain (as many as 100 million in America today). My theory is that he gets shunted into the category of all other alternative therapies, as merely one of many modalities that include chiropractic, acupuncture, Feldenkrais, Alexander technique, rolfing, sound therapy, prolotherapy, physiotherapy… These therapies are all good and fine. They address the symptoms of pain and often can provide greatly needed relief–albeit temporarily. What people don’t understand is this crucial difference between Dr. Sarno and everyone else: while many modalities treat the symptoms, Dr. Sarno has the cure.
Dr. Sarno explains how the source of chronic pain is initiated unconsciously by the brain and therefore can be reversed by the brain. (He labels this phenomenon as Tension Myoneural Syndrome or TMS.) The unconscious mind turns emotions that cannot be expressed into something more socially acceptable: physical pain. When we are afraid of expressing our emotions, we eventually become adept at repressing them. In other words, we hide it so well that we hide it from ourselves. But, like the truth, our emotions cannot be denied.
Most people accept that conditions such as high blood pressure, an increased heart rate, tension headaches, and other physical conditions are related to stress. But back pain and other types of chronic muscular, joint, or nerve pain are not widely accepted as stress-induced conditions. In America, chronic pain has become an epidemic: if you are not suffering right now you probably know someone who is. Does it make sense that in less than one generation all of our backs could have physically deteriorated so drastically? “What has happened to the American back?” Dr. Sarno asks. To have structural defects suddenly pop up in massive numbers is not a rational explanation. But most people would agree we are under a lot of stress in today’s society.
My recovery from over 30 years of chronic back pain began only after I read “Healing Back Pain” and learned about the profound impact of my emotions on my health. Prior to that I suffered for years from lower back, upper back, neck, and foot pain. At times the pain was so severe I would be on the floor for a week. I tried everything short of drugs and surgery: chiropractic treatments, acupuncture, physical therapy, yoga, massage, posture classes, special mattresses and pillows, and fashionable ergonomic products. I readjusted my workstation and did exercises. Nothing worked: some things helped temporarily, others were totally ineffective from the start. I resigned myself to just getting on with my life even though I continued to be in pain with no end in sight. I had a loving family and young children, but there were times when it felt like life was not worth living.
Then one day I stumbled across a blog by a computer science professor at USC (one would say a very logical and scientific person) who took the trouble to explain in detail his recovery from years of back pain:
Like most academics in a technical field, I am a strong believer in the scientific process, and I can spot “quackery” a mile away. This made it difficult for me to accept the cause of my back pain, seeing as the theory behind it appears like a bunch of phooey at first glance. I hope that detailing my experience here will help others overcome their pain sooner rather than later.
That caught my attention. So I kept reading…
Once I diagnosed myself with TMS, read some of Sarno’s books, and did the mental work they suggested, I was cured in a matter of weeks from my years of chronic pain. It was the most surreal experience of my life, and it felt as unbelievable as it sounds.
That article was the beginning of my recovery, and it has been a surreal experience for me as well.
Some people are cured simply by reading Dr. Sarno’s books and learning about the mind-body connection, while others must work through their emotions before they see results. I started to recover rapidly after reading “Healing Back Pain,” and I also had to uncover both past trauma and current life stressors to completely heal. For me, therapeutic journaling was an effective treatment. As were making life changes and learning self-compassion and meditation.
The way mainstream medicine is practiced today, one would wonder whether people are looked upon as machines while doctors are the mechanics tinkering with our parts, using the latest tools and technology. Problems are seen as structural, chemical, and material; solutions increasingly rely upon the technical and the artificial.
But to truly flourish, humans need space to feel their feelings. Emotions are a matter of life and death. Love, hope, forgiveness, anger and fear are natural to us and cannot be denied. Centenarians are a mostly optimistic bunch; people with severe adverse childhood experiences die 20 years earlier than average. How can modern medicine develop a cure for the great chronic pain crisis when it completely ignores the root cause and neglects to search in the right places?
Doctors and surgeons are the first to attest to the limitations of conventional practice, but nothing changes until the cultural mindset does. Even when they’re told their condition is stress-related, people often will continue searching for a physical diagnosis and pharmaceutical treatments, unknowingly blinding themselves to the wisdom of the mind-body that is the path to recovery. It is to our detriment that so many of us continue to ignore the truth and sideline a revolutionary like Dr. Sarno even in the face of his unequivocal healing.
“All the Rage” is extraordinary in its emotional power, a feat rarely achieved by a documentary film about a primarily academic topic. As one reviewer noted, it is more entertaining than a film with this topic has any right to be. Dr. Sarno’s overwhelming success outside the medical establishment and difficulty convincing the community of professionals to follow his lead is not the only compelling tale; we glean much insight from co-director Michael Galinsky’s own battle with crippling pain and his search for the way out. Both stories prop open the door for those hoping to be saved.