By Brocha Metzger
I read Dr. John E. Sarno’s book. And then I had back surgery.
Let me explain.
I feel compelled to respond to the Sarno Fever currently raging in Crown Heights, as highlighted by the recent article on COLlive.com, in addition to the repeated feedback from those who attended.
I know too many back-pain sufferers who are being told that Dr. Sarno’s method is the only way. Especially in the frum community where group sessions are converting the masses. I do know that while many of those in attendance find relief with the Mind-Body approach, countless others do not, and will not. Dr. Sarno’s diagnosis of TMR (a harmless condition which presents itself as a result of repressed emotions) is a revelation for many patients. For others, like me, there are serious conditions that are entirely physical which require medical intervention.
I was actually practicing the Sarno method (of essentially ignoring my pain) before I knew of its existence. Despite back pain that would eventually extend down my leg, I kept going. I took frequent walks and even went hiking. I had hoped my back pains would subside after a few weeks, just as they had in past bouts. Mind over matter. Ain’t nothin’ gonna keep me down.
That was last summer. I kvetched a little to my friends but managed to keep going. In exercise class I simply skipped high-impact segments. I popped Advils but nothing more.
In September I was taking one of my walks in Central Park when I had a severe spasm in my knee, which then gave way. I was down on the asphalt path. Kind passersby rushed to help me. I managed to get up onto my feet. And then minutes later it happened again. Then again. Initially I did not associate these incidents with my back and thought I had some form of leg paralysis. Others asked if I had been suffering from back issues and connected the dots for me. Duh.
I visited the NYU Spine Center. They tested my reflexes and determined that I was indeed suffering from sciatica and that I had nerve damage which was causing my leg to give way. My reflexes in that leg were shot. They scheduled an MRI for the following week, after Rosh Hashana.
On Rosh Hashana I had to use a walker with a flip-down seat to go to shul. Every short city block or so I had to sit down due to spasms and knee collapse. During lunch at Chabad, one man, a nice frum visitor, said that I absolutely must talk to the frum Sarno pratitioner who had cured him. The man’s wife related to me that her husband had back problems so severe that he stayed in a Manhattan hotel after work to spare her the worry over his cries of pain. He thought he would never move again. He was doubtful at first, but then, after speaking with the Sarno practitioner for an hour, he was cured. Done. Finito.
Another woman at shul related that she had frequent back pain until she read Dr. Sarno’s book. She said that his treatment works and that it is true that back problems are stress-related. The next day she brought the book in, “Healing Back Pain – The Mind-Body Method” by Dr. John E. Sarno. I read it. In one afternoon.
Had I been under a lot of stress? check (But how many people do you know that are not under stress?). Was I in agony and hysterics about my back as many of Dr. Sarno’s patients had been? NO. Was I afraid to move or was I completely immobilized? NO. Was I ignoring my emotions? NO. Was I living in fear that my life as I had known it was over? Also NO. I had persistent back pain but the Mind-Body method that I had instituted on my own was not working. My knee was still giving way. And I found out why after my MRI later that week.
Unlike some of those cured of pain stemming from the standard slipped or herniated discs, one of my numerous herniated discs was completely extruded. The gel contents of my disc had separated entirely and was lodged along my spinal cord like a strip of toothpaste. The doctors said it was a miracle I could walk at all. Even Dr. Sarno acknowledges in his book that in severe cases, especially where nerve damage occurs, surgery might be warranted. I did not have what the Sarno people call “TMS”. This was not a psychosomatic issue. It was beyond anything that could be cured in the mind-over-matter way. I was already attempting to distract myself and move on as if I had no pain. I was doing the Sarno-prescribed stuff before I had even read the book.
During this period, my cousin Charlotte called. She had heard about my back trouble. Years ago she had back trouble. She went to Dr. Sarno. He helped quite a bit. But now her back pain was back and her husband would have to push her to shul in a wheelchair on Yom Kippur. “So, Charlotte. Will you finally have back surgery?”. “No of course not. Back surgery is scary. Mind over Matter”. My doctor was on the other line. I told her I would call her back but never did. (Sorry Charlotte. If you are reading this. I was afraid to hear that the Mind-Body method administered by Dr. Sarno himself was not working…that you were getting around in a wheelchair…and that you still would not consider surgery…the prospect of which is, indeed, scary.)
I did not want surgery and the doctors did not push it. They said we would try every other alternative and medical intervention before considering an operation. So for three months I did it all. Epidural injections. Physical therapy. Acupunture by three different types of practitioners (maybe this one will know he/she is doing!). One acupunturist, an MD, said “You don’t need an MRI. We all have slipped and herniated discs. With one session you will walk out of here and be fine”. Um, I was barely able to make it out of her office upright. FAIL.
After ten months of varying back pain and sciatica, as well as a second expert opinion from a Rofeh yedid, I had the surgery. By then the disc matter on my spinal cord had calcified and literally had to be dug out of me. Recovery was not fun. No sitting for a week or two. No riding in cars for six weeks. Et al.
Post-surgery there was tremendous immediate relief but not a total cessation of back trouble. With increasing pain, I recently went back to the spine center only to find that an additional disc had herniated, that a new fragment was lodged lower down on my spine, and that the reason I was having trouble sitting was because I have arthritis my lower back. All this is complicated and partially caused by my lumbar scolosis. A cortisone injection BH seems to be helping a lot. There is hope that I many never need additional back surgery. And yes, mind over matter does help. A lot. It simply does not go the full mile for me.
Recently an article appeared on COLLIVE that featured the Crown Heights session touting the miraculous effects of the Sarno Method. Large crowds have been attending similar events in many frum neighborhoods. Since then a whole lot of well-intentioned people seem to think that, had I known about Sarno’s approach, I would be ready for the Olympics today. Sorry folks, my back is just very, very Jewish. And, quite frankly, I’m exhausted from having to explain to countless people why my back issues require medical intervention.
I am not attempting to throw a damper on a method that has truly helped – and possibly even cured – many people suffering from pain. I am simply cautioning readers not to buckle to the herd mentality. I see people suffering from sciatica, with a potential for permanent nerve damage, who are near-brainwashed into thinking that Sarno is the only way.
I am told that upwards of 80% of adults suffer from back pain at some point in their lives. The Sarno Method has helped many and I hope it will continue to heal those in need. For those who are not cured by this approach, just FYI, there are other treatments to consider.
So. To Sarno or not to Sarno? That is the question.
The answer depends upon whom is doing the asking.