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What Dr. John E. Sarno Discovered About Chronic Pain

Chronic pain is a modern epidemic. But what truly causes it? And what’s the cure?

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For those who have been diagnosed with slipped discs, fibromyalgia, repetitive strain injury, tennis elbow, etc. the future can sometimes look bleak. Or rather: painful. Yet, is chronic pain really chronic? And is it really caused by what you think it is?

My Own Case of Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI)

A few years ago I started getting shooting pains in my hands when typing. Soon it hurt so much to type that it was next to impossible. As it got worse, other things became difficult too — from driving my car, to cooking. However, the main trigger was typing. When I did not type at all, things got better. The problem? I am a writer.

Naturally, I went to a doctor, who referred me to an osteopath. He explained, that while it cannot be diagnosed, I had repetitive strain injury. Supposedly I had written so much that my hands now objected to the task.

The doctor put my hands and wrists in plastic casks and gave me meds for nerve pain, but nothing helped. So I sought out other therapists. I tried physiotherapy, massage, chiropractic therapy, acupuncture and some other modalities. Out of these, what truly helped was the chiropractor and the masseuse who went at my hands, arms and upper back like crazy. In fact, the chiropractor used needles that he inserted into “pain points” and moved them about to stimulate the muscle.

What the chiropractor did helped the most, but it also hurt the most. I consider myself to be someone who can handle the kind of pain you get from an injection — long ago I learned that relaxing is the best technique to prevent pain and, consequently, challenged to relax as much as possible when dealing with pain.

Well, let’s just say that during these sessions I cried and screamed. It was like going to a torture chamber — I literally felt tortured — but I knew that afterwards, I’d feel better.

The treatments were making me better, so I felt hope. Then, one night, I had dinner with an acquaintance who’s a doctor. He looked me sternly in the eye and said there was no cure — I did realize, didn’t I, that my improvement would only be temporary?

After that, things got worse again.

When I first got pain I reached out on Facebook asking if anyone had cured themselves of RSI? If anyone had any tips at all? Someone suggested I read a book by Doctor John E. Sarno called Healing Back Pain: the Mind-Body Connection. Ironically, I’d bought that book, or his later one, The Mindbody Prescription: Healing the Body, Healing the Pain, a few years earlier, as I had back pain. Yet, I never got round to reading the book.

This time around, I thought to myself there would be no point. My pain was due to typing too much. How could this guy cure me? Reading up about RSI I had found that it seemed the cause may be some fibrous tissue buildup in the muscle/around the tendons. Many had found relief, like I had at first, through massage. And I mean the kind of intense massage that would break down this build-up. So how could Dr. Sarno possibly cure me with some method that was based around thinking?

However, when I had been through every therapy I could think of, I found someone else recommending Dr. Sarno online when searching a solution. At this stage I was desperate. And as I read more I found fascinating accounts of people, like myself, who had had some relief through the massage therapy, but not been cured. Then they’d found Dr. Sarno. One guy had even had several surgeries first. Nothing had cured him. Then he found Dr. Sarno.

Me? Two weeks after reading Sarno’s book I was more or less back to normal.

So what happened?

Dr. Sarno’s Take on Chronic Pain

Dr. Sarno explains in his books that throughout time there have been “epidemics” not caused by viruses. Take women’s hysteria back in the day, for example. Women were fainting right left and center. Today they don’t faint.

A more recent example, is stomach ulcers. They were very popular, especially amongst “stressed” people, for a while. Then a cure (medication) was discovered and they disappeared. By that I don’t mean that people just got cured. No, less people suddenly got stomach ulcers. Why?

Dr. Sarno believes that these kind of epidemics are caused by the mind. The mind is looking for something to cause a distraction.

Why?

Say you just had a baby. You want to be the perfect parent. You want to look after the child. Instead, you’re tired, irritable and angry. Yes, you’re angry with your newborn because you’re constantly tired and overworked and feeling like shit. But you obviously know you can’t blame your newborn for this. You chose to have a baby. And you want to be the perfect parent. So you feel guilty for being angry. This leads to you immediately suppressing your anger. You might not even notice it’s there. And to make sure you don’t notice, the body creates a distraction, such as back pain.

Dr. Sarno notes that the more you want to do good and the less you like upsetting people, the more likely you are to end up with pain. People who have been subjected to abuse in childhood are particularly prone to it, but also the high achievers of the world. The ones who are striving to get somewhere in their careers, or be “the perfect parents.”

Structural Damage

Dr. Sarno points out that many people with back pain are diagnosed with things like herniated discs. The thing is, if you look at x-rays you’ll find that most people have some form of wear and tear on their spine, included herniated discs, but most people aren’t in pain. So why are some people in pain?

Dr. Sarno suggests it’s the body’s way of creating a distraction. And the pain is real. It’s not imaginary. He believes, thanks to some studies, that the reason is that the brain causes the blood vessels in a certain area to narrow, thereby creating oxygen deprivation, which in turn, can cause muscle and nerve pain.

What Dr. Sarno also points out is that if you break a bone, or cut yourself, it will heal within days, or weeks. If you can heal a bone within a couple of weeks, why would an injury you had twenty years ago still cause you pain? It seems, however, that the brain chooses to create pain around an area where there is some sort of structural abnormality, or where you believe is a likely area for pain, such as your hands if you type a lot.

And what Dr. Sarno also points out is that most people get worse after getting a diagnosis as they become scared. They’re scared the pain won’t go away, or get worse and then it does.

Get a Diagnosis

It’s important to note that Dr. Sarno always told people to get a medical evaluation before doing anything else. While a slipped disc may not actually be causing the kind of pain you think it is, there could be some other medical abnormality going on that needs to be taken care of.

Emotions Affect the Body

Most of us take it for granted that embarrassment, or joy, can cause us to blush, while being in love, or nervous, can give us “butterflies in our belly,” or a bit of stomach pain. Personally, I know that my stomach can freak out completely if I get really stressed, or really nervous about something.

So is it so strange if suppressed emotions, of any kind, would cause pain? Could it be that the brain is just trying to keep us busy so we don’t have to think about what we don’t want to think about? Or is it the brain’s way of showing us that we are, in fact, suppressing something?

In Closing

This article only briefly touches upon the things Dr. Sarno go through in his books, including thousands of cases to back up his theories. Dr. Sarno had a long career working for New York University as a medical doctor and his theories are backed up by having cured thousands of people. Even on Amazon you’ll find incredible reviews from people simply reading the books and following his suggestions. I’m one of those people and I feel very strongly about his books because I thought I was losing the ability to use my hands and Dr. Sarno cured me. 

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