Chronic Pain and the Mind-Body Connection, Explained

Chronic Pain and the Mind-Body Connection, Explained

Chronic pain is something that millions of people all over the world experience. From back and neck pain to headaches and even migraines, it seems everyone knows someone who experiences some sort of chronic pain, if not themselves directly.

In fact, the National Institute of Health says that pain affects more Americans than diabetes, heart disease and cancer combined. It is also cited as the most common reason Americans access the health care system, becoming a leading cause of disability and a major contributor to health care costs. The National Center for Health Statistics found that Approximately 76.2 million (one in every four Americans) have suffered from pain that lasts longer than 24 hours, with chronic pain being the most common cause of long-term disability.

To make matters worse, the Centers for Disease Control found that sales of prescription opioids in the U.S. nearly quadrupled from 1999 to 2014, with prescription opioid overdose deaths increasing at a similar rate. 

Looking at these statistics, one can come to the conclusion that America is experiencing a pain epidemic of disastrous proportions. 

But, what if that pain could be healed without medication or even the use of physical means like massage or chiropractic adjustments? 

What if all it took to relieve your pain was a deeper look inside your mind?

Well, according to a Dr. John E. Sarno, that’s all it takes. 

After years of treating patients with chronic pain, even working as the clinical director at the New York State Rehabilitation Hospital, Dr. Sarno found that even after surgery, his patients would continue to have pain. 

And, as good doctors do, Dr. Sarno began looking deeper to find a solution to the suffering he was seeing his patients experience everyday, and his research led him to the mind-body connection.

What is the mind-body connection?

The mind-body connection is a simple concept that the mind plays a role in producing the perception of pain, and in promoting healing. Now, this idea isn’t new. In fact, going back to the the time of the Early Greeks and Romans, it was Hippocrates who, to our knowledge, first made that connection.

However, as years and even centuries went by, scientists began to separate the mind and body, treating the body as its own separate machine. Medical doctors of the 19th century began developing opiates such as morphine to relieve pain. Things like Aspirin and other oral pain medications were then developed, treating the pain symptoms that so many were experiencing. This in turn, shifted people’s mindset that pain was a physical thing, not something that could be triggered or even healed by the mind.

Enter: Dr. Sarno 

In 1965, Dr. Sarno was working as the Director of the Outpatient Department at the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine, and found his position frustrating.

In his book, “Healing Back Pain: The Mind Body Connection,” Dr. Sarno wrote about being frustrated, stating, “The experience of treating these patients was frustrating and depressing; one could never predict the outcome. … It was troubling to realize that the pattern of pain and physical examination findings often did not correlate with the presumed reason for the pain. … Someone might have a lumbar disc that was herniated to the left and have pain in the right leg.”

John E. Sarno

While noticing several inconsistencies in his patients, he dug deeper to find that the primary tissue involved was muscle, in particular those in the neck, shoulders, back and buttocks. These patients, Dr. Sarno came to find also had histories of migraine headache, heartburn, stomach ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma and eczema -- all of which were related to tension in the body. 

After his observations, Dr. Sarno concluded that the pain his patients were experiencing was induced by tension, or as he put it, “Emotions that are generated in the unconscious mind and that, to a large extent, remain there.” 

He further researched that repressed emotions like anxiety and anger began a process where the autonomic nervous system causes a reduction in blood flow to certain parts of the body, resulting in pain.

Dr. Sarno believed that while the pain was real, it was controlled by their brains, and as such, could be turned off at will. He called the condition, Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS), referring to the tension (suppressed emotions) in the muscles.

Putting his theory to the test

If you see a person in agonizing pain, try telling him that the pain is all his head. You would quite possibly find yourself writhing in pain after getting socked in the face. 

Well, that is exactly what Dr. Sarno had to do. 

Rather than prescribing medication, surgery, rest, or  eventually even physical therapy, chiropractic adjustments or massage therapy, Dr. Sarno had his patients pay attention to what was happening in their lives. What were they worried about? What life stressors were they dealing with at the moment? He even had them dig deep into their unconscious and subconscious mind to find suppressed memories that brought about feelings and emotions that hadn’t been or weren’t being dealt with.

He instructed his patients to talk to their pain and tell it to leave, essentially bringing the pain out of the physical realm and into the psychological. He told them not to repress anger or emotions, think of themselves as being injured or be intimidated by the pain. 

Dr. Sarno took it a step further by telling patients to stop all treatments that he deemed as placebos, and to resume physical exercise as soon as possible.

The results?

The results of  Dr. Sarno’s studies, he published in  two follow-up surveys that can be found in his books. The first one was conducted in 1982 and included 177 randomly selected patients. 76 percent stated that they were leading normal, pain-free lives. The second follow-up survey took place in 1987, included 109 randomly selected patients, however, only included patients with herniated discs identified on CT-scans. 88 percent stated that they were free of pain one to three years after their TMS treatment.

Why haven’t you heard of this?

With chronic pain being so prevalent in today’s society, why have so few people heard about TMS? Simply put, TMS treatments have yet to be embraced by mainstream medical establishments. The medical world is slow to change, and Dr. Sarno found several times over in his quest to educate medical professionals.

But it isn’t just Dr. Sarno

While Dr. Sarno is a, if not the pioneer in the mind body connection, there are many doing what they can to help individuals with chronic pain. And with the recent passing of Dr. Sarno in June, 2017, several TMS professionals have found it necessary that others continue his work.

In fact, a recent Indiegogo campaign is working to gain traction and funding to garner the attention of mainstream medical science. With several TMS trained doctors, therapists and professors at its disposal, this breakthrough study is making strides to change minds to rid the world of pain -- one brain at a time. 

NOTE FROM THE EDITOR: If you found this article interesting, read our story on Wim Hof and the emerging science behind his method to push limits of the body.

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