Moshe’s Thank You

Dear Dr. Sarno-

I am writing this letter in the sincerest gratitude for your books and what reading them has done for me. My story is a familiar one: Three years ago, facing stressful full time work, graduate school at night at NYU, and a pending divorce, I began having unrelenting back pain. My back muscles were extremely tight, and the pain was chronic. Every day, the first thing I would feel in the morning and the last thing I would feel at night was burning pain in my back. I began to live my life in fear and depression, not sure why my body was failing me on top of all the other stresses that were going on at the time. I felt like a crippled old man, even though I was just 30 years old.

Once I graduated with my MBA in 2005, I decided to get to the bottom of the pain once and for all. I went to doctors who gave me ineffective pills and patches, each reading an MRI of my back with wildly different opinions as to what was “wrong” with me. I went to physical therapists who told me I had an arthritic back, and that I should stay in bed for 20 hours a day – despite the fact that I am an intermediate student of the Martial Arts and avid motorcyclist! I went to psychologists who told me that whatever was transpiring in my head had nothing to do with my body. I tried acupuncture, massage, water therapy, and more. All had temporary, if any, positive effects. A year had gone by, and I was in worse pain than ever!

Finally, I came upon your books. Despite how obvious it seemed to me all along, it was such a vindication to read that the mind and body are completely interrelated medically, a fact that is at the core of the Martial Arts I am studying. I read your books with much interest and decided to stop looking outside for relief. With nothing to lose, it was time to turn inward.

First, I ceased any physical activity I was performing for the sole purpose of healing my back. The idea was to stop the desperate shotgun approach, and to focus with laser accuracy solely on my mind. Next, using the meditation techniques I learned in martial arts, I dedicated 30 minutes per day to sitting quietly and clearing my mind while paying strict attention to my breathing. With the breathing calm, the mind immediately followed suit, and soon I could just listen. I realized just how much pent up frustration and anger I had within me, and I began to think deeply about those issues. It was extremely difficult to get to the core of it all. Like anything worthwhile, it took perseverance over a long period of time! Finally, after about 4 months of diligent daily practice, I began to notice a change for the better. The endless days of severe pain were giving way to moderate burning, and then to total relief for 1-2 days of each week. Encouraged, I kept on the same path and soon, relief became the rule instead of the exception.

It should be noted that there were setbacks – not every day was better than the previous one. Some days, it felt like I was getting nowhere. And it wasn’t easy to choose between horrific physical pain or brooding for hours over depressing issues, either. But I just kept on with it no matter what, confident that this was right for me.

People who witnessed my progress, physically and mentally, were dubious that all of this could be accomplished without exercise and medications, as if the meditation was somehow easy work. Far from it! But the results speak for themselves. The eventual success of this system proves beyond any shadow of doubt that the mind and the body are one, and any attempt to separate the effects of one on the other is misguided at best. Importantly, it also proves that we have the capacity to heal ourselves of debilitating chronic pain, if we are willing to go through the effort to do so.

Today, I am finally living pain-free, and I have you to thank for it, Dr. Sarno. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for what you advocate and what you’ve written!


Moshe K L

Pamela J’s Thank You

I stood waiting impatiently for my turn to swing from the rope and drop down into the cool water below.  The swimming hole hidden in the Catskill Mountains was a delicious diversion on a warm summer day for those of us lucky enough to have discovered it.   

When my turn came, I grabbed the rope, and swung out far over the water.

My timing must have been off,  because instead of dropping in the center of the hole, I landed on the steep sides of the canyon where the water was only a few feet deep.  

I gasped, momentarily paralyzed by a sharp stabbing pain in my spine.  Another diver helped me out of the water and ran to the nearest house to call an ambulance; there were no cell phones back in 1977.  There were also no roads to our remote swimming hole, and I remember the EMTs carrying me down the steep mountain path on a stretcher.

I was lucky (and young); my compression fracture healed within a few months and the accident receded into the past.  But ten years later, newly married and living in New York, my pain mysteriously resurfaced.  Eventually, it became so intense that I had to write on my back lying on a heating pad.

“It’s in the exact place where I broke my back,” I said to my husband, John.  “The old injury must be acting up.”

John knew of a celebrity chiropractor renowned for treating Broadway dancers.  Surely he would know about back pain. 

Dr. Pressman (aptly named) manipulated my back and employed ultrasound and massage.  When these failed to help, he recommended limiting physical activity.

 “Most importantly,” he cautioned, “do not under any circumstances do the breaststroke.” ( I swam regularly at the Midtown YMCA.)  “The breaststroke puts extra strain on the lower back.”

The breaststroke was the most pleasurable and relaxing swimming stroke, and I couldn’t resist sneaking in a few laps now and then. But each time I did, I emerged from the pool crippled with pain.  

And then things got worse.  My back pain got so bad I could barely walk, which was a serious problem living in a fifth-floor walkup.  Dr. Pressman prescribed a tight-fitting corset similar to the one I had worn after my back accident.  Now, not only was my physical activity circumscribed, but my very breath was constricted. 

I was terrified; my world seemed to be shrinking. 

Until he died at the age of 93, Dr. John E. Sarno revolutionized the field of psychosomatic disorders.

About this time a friend showed me an article she’d read in New York Magazine  by Tony Schwartz, who described a year spent in inexorable back pain.  He had visited many doctors and alternative practitioners and tried every conceivable cure but nothing relieved his pain – until he consulted Dr. John Sarno, a professor of Rehabilitation Medicine at New York University School of Medicine.  

Without fully understanding what magic Dr. Sarno evoked, I hurried out and bought his book, Mind Over Back Pain.  I was barely half-way through when something that did seem magical, or at least miraculous, happened.

All trace of my back pain completely vanished.

“I can’t believe it!” I told anyone who would listen, “Dr. Sarno’s book cured my back pain!”

Just to be thorough, I followed up with a visit to the doctor himself.  

When I met him, Dr. Sarno appeared friendly and business-like in an immaculate white lab coat and tie, a stethoscope around his neck.

“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with your back,” he said, after examining my X-rays.”

“But what about the old injury?” I asked.

“It’s healed, and in any case it’s not causing you any pain.”

Dr. Sarno educated his patients to understand that most chronic pain is an attempt to distract from unconscious painful emotions, such as rage or grief.  He believed the physical symptoms resulted from a muscle spasm which sets in motion a self-perpetuating cycle of fear and pain.  Dr. Sarno named this condition “tension myositis syndrome,” (TMS), also known  as “mind-body syndrome.”  

Dr. Sarno’s is a knowledge cure; you do not have to understand the unconscious emotions to relieve the symptoms, except in rare cases where the repressed emotional pain is intolerable.  In that case therapy may be a necessary adjunct.

It is understandable that we develop physical symptoms to mask feelings that are socially or psychologically unacceptable.  No one wants to reply a casual “How are you?” with “I’m fine except for the rage over being invisible to my parents,” or  “I’m great except for the grief over my father’s death.”  It’s easier to tell others (and yourself) “My bad knee (hip, shoulder, neck) is acting up again.”  Indeed, one of the unconscious mind’s favorite tricks is to create pain at an old injury site (as with my back pain) in an attempt to convince you this symptom is not brain-generated.  

In his last book, The Divided Mind: The Epidemic of Mind-body Disorders, Dr. Sarno wrote about his successful treatment of thousands of patients not only for back pain but other conditions, such fibromyalgia, heartburn, joint pain, and chronic fatigue.  TMS also manifests psychologically as phobia, depression, or anxiety.  Paradoxically, by creating symptoms, the unconscious mind is trying to protect you from a deluge of powerful repressed emotions.  

Other physicians and practitioners, too, are discovering the psychological basis of somatic illness. In her book Is It All in Your Head?: True Stories of Imaginary Illness, British neurologist, Suzanne O’Sullivan, M.D. states that approximately a third of her patients experience psychosomatic seizures.  The Pain Psychology Clinic in California has over twenty practitioners, while Curable: The App for Chronic Pain allows you to work at your own pace, at home.  Filmmaker Michal Galinsky’s movie, All the Rage, Saved by Sarno, (2016), documents Dr. Sarno’s lifelong crusade against the billion-dollar chronic pain epidemic.  The film chronicles Dr. Sarno’s successful treatment of prominent figures, including John Stossel, Larry David, and Howard Stern.

Of course it’s important be examined by your doctor to rule out serious illness or rare structural conditions that can cause pain.  (Dr. Sarno later declined to treat my husband when he suffered from an internal bleed that destroyed the nerves of his leg; knowledge was not going to resolve that.)

Although my back pain vanished after consulting Dr. Sarno, my unconscious mind did not appreciate being called out.  As soon as I accepted that the cause of my pain was TMS-related, I created a new symptom to take its place.  Dr. Sarno called this the symptom imperative.  People who exhibit the typical TMS temperament – driven, ambitious, perfectionistic – are especially susceptible. 

“OK guys, she’s on to us with the back pain,“ I imagined my unconscious mind saying.  “Let’s give her knee pain or irritable bowel or painful bladder or anything to distract her from repressed emotions and convince her this is not psychosomatic.”  

As much as I want to spread the good news about Dr. Sarno, I am hesitant to tell people in chronic pain about TMS. 

“How can you say it’s all in my head?” they argue.  “I’m not crazy! The pain is real.”

“I saw my x-rays!  My doctor says I have a herniated disc” (or a bone spur or arthritis).

As Dr. Sarno discovered, these physical conditions do not necessarily result in pain.  In The Divided Mind, he describes a patient whose orthopedist recommended surgery after the patient’s x-ray showed substantial degeneration of his left hip.  After this recommendation, his left hip pain increased . . . When he told me that his right hip felt fine, I asked him to humor me by having both of his hips ex-rayed.  On x-ray both hips had the same “degenerative” change, yet his right hip did not hurt!”

 As I was leaving Dr. Sarno’s office that day in back 1987, I stopped and turned around. “Dr. Sarno,” I asked, “can I do the breaststroke?”

“Not only can you do the breaststroke,” Dr. Sarno said, raising a finger in the air for emphasis, “if you want to get better, you must do the breaststroke.” 

 After that I did lap after lap of the breaststroke, kicking as hard as I could and never experienced a tinge of back pain. Although I still experience the symptom imperative to some extent, Dr. Sarno’s discoveries have dramatically decreased the intensity and duration of these episodes, and given me a rich and enduring appreciation for the power of the mind.

 As hundreds of thousands of grateful patients have said before me, thank you, Dr. Sarno.

Note: This essay was originally published in Folks at Pillpack, which is no longer in print.  All right to this piece have reverted to me.

Pamela J is an author of over thirty children’s books, and an essayist whose work has appeared in The NY Times, The Wall Street Journal, The NY Daily News, Writer’s Digest, The Independent, and The Writer.  Pamela has also published humor in The Daily Drunk, Erma Bombeck, Brevity, The Satirist, and others.

Dave M’s Thank You

I had severe lower back pain. It took six nurses to get me out the car when I arrived the the hospital for surgery, the seat soaked in perspiration from the pain. Soon after the discectomy it returned. I couldn’t walk fast and spent a large part of my twenties bedridden.

I picked up a book, The Naked Mind, about living happily without alcohol, and in it Annie Grace talks about how anger fueled all her pain and mentions Dr. Sarno. Five weeks after reading Healing Back Pain, I had made a full recovery. My spine felt like that of a ten year old’s, the time before the pain.

I’m now in my 40’s and I do marathons, Ironmans, swims, and barefoot runs for fun… whatever I want, essentially.  

A good twenty people I have lent the book to have made a complete recovery too. 

Bobby’s Thank You

Thanks to Dr Sarno, I continue to live with my back pain-free, symptom-free, restriction-free, posture-unrestricted, medication-free, gadget-free. To stay healthy I try to eat healthily, follow the orthomolecular guidelines for supplementation, see my MaxLiving chiropractor on a regular schedule, and exercise for an hour every other morning with an ‘outdoor all-weather sunrise exercise group’.

I continue to tell my story of being freed from back pain to anyone who might benefit. I always ask them the question that really got my attention about the likelihood of my condition being TMS: is your pain the worst in the wee hours of the morning? If so, then you should explore the possibility that your pain comes from TMS.

Thank You Dr. Sarno!
— Bobby K.

At the outdoor all-weather sunrise exercise group in 31 degree weather. Holding a solid plank on the roller wheel, on one foot. In Jan 2020 — four months before turning age 65.

The following is my first thank-you LETTER to Dr. Sarno — from 2003:

November 6, 2003
Dr. John E. Sarno
Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine
400 East 34th St
New York, NY 10016

Dear Dr. Sarno:

Thank you so much for all of the materials that you have published about TMS, and for writing to tell me of a doctor in my area who is knowledgeable about TMS.  I have an appointment in a few weeks to see Dr. Andrea Segal at GWU Center for Integrative Medicine, and hope to get a diagnosis of my condition from her.  I’m also visiting tomorrow with the Integrative Medicine clinic at my local Kaiser Permanente HMO to see what they can offer.

I don’t have much of a story to tell … other than it was much like you described in books and video. The first time around, about 4 years ago, I’d not heard of TMS, and went the conventional route — with all the attendant restrictions and fear that continue after the pain goes away. 

Then I had an episode about a year ago, awful pain, delays getting a new MRI.  Found one of your books, acquired and studied more information sources about TMS, and was pain-free and fear-free in no time.  Just a few weeks ago, I had a rather painful episode, and got back into the materials to study what to do in such a case, and again am rapidly better.  I am so fortunate and grateful that you developed the TMS theory, published your materials, and that I found those materials — and even more grateful that I am well, and have so little pain or fear. Praise the Lord!

The whole world owes you a very large thanks.  It is my hope that your methods will soon be widely accepted all across the country and the world.  If there’s anything that I can do to contribute to furthering that goal, I’d be interested in participating.  (I have recently returned a research survey form to Dr. Schechter.)

I wish you all the best in all your endeavors, and in your whole life.

Bobby K.