Dr. John Sarno, 93, Dies; Best-Selling Author Tied Pain to Anxieties


His books, including the best-selling “Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection,” became popular largely through word of mouth. Thousands of people have claimed to have been cured by reading them.

His ideas inspired online support forums that doubled almost as shrines to him, and he received glowing endorsements from celebrities like Anne Bancroft, Larry David and Howard Stern, who dedicated his autobiography to the doctor.

Another who swore by him, the financial writer and Wall Street trader Edward Siedle, described Dr. Sarno in a Forbes column as “the most brilliant doctor in America and unfortunately, a largely neglected national treasure.”

The mainstream medical community, however, generally dismissed his theories as simplistic and unscientific, and felt that he went too far in saying that emotional factors not only worsen chronic pain, but also directly cause it.

“His views are definitely considered on the fringe,” said Dr. Christopher Gharibo, a pain management specialist at the Langone Medical Center at N.Y.U. “His position was that almost all chronic pain is purely psychological and ‘all in the head,’ which I certainly disagree with.”

Eric Sherman, a psychotherapist who worked with Dr. Sarno for many years, recalled how Dr. Sarno’s colleagues would belittle him behind his back in lunchtime conversations at N.Y.U., even as some would visit him privately for their ailments.

“It was him against the world, yet he was never afraid of not fitting in,” Dr. Sherman said. “He had a ‘damn the torpedoes’ perspective on his work, and was notoriously indifferent to others’ opinions of him.”

Dr. Sarno, who specialized in rehabilitation medicine, developed his theories over almost 50 years at N.Y.U. He gave the various forms of chronic pain the collective name “tension myositis syndrome” (T.M.S.), which, apart from its psychological roots, he attributed to mild oxygen deprivation caused by reduced blood flow to muscles and nerves throughout the body.

He said most of his patients improved simply by learning and thinking about the psychosomatic connection to pain, and that others recovered by journaling regularly and, in some cases, doing psychotherapy.

Dr. Sarno, a health-conscious man who walked from his Upper East Side home to N.Y.U. every day well into his 80s, said he had gotten rid of his allergies by regarding them as T.M.S.

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Dr. Sarno’s book “Healing Back Pain” became popular largely through word of mouth. Thousands of people have claimed to have been cured after reading his books.

Credit
Grand Central Publishing

Untrained as a researcher, Dr. Sarno never conducted formal studies of his methods, saying he preferred to spend his time helping people individually. “My proof is that my patients get better,” he often told his doubters.

Some of his ideas, like his assertion that there is no correlation between chronic back pain and herniated discs, have been validated by research published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

A handful of doctors have embraced his mind-body theories and started testing them empirically.

“In my practice, I’ve seen enough examples of people getting rid of chronic pain through psychotherapy to know that the mind-body connection needs to be researched in more depth,” said Dr. Howard Schubiner, who started a Mind-Body Medicine program several years ago at Providence Hospital in Southfield, Mich., basing it on the work of Dr. Sarno.

A study led by David Schechter, a professor at the University of Southern California, in 2007 found that chronic pain subjects who underwent a mind-body treatment — which included reading educational materials, journaling about emotions and, in more extreme cases, undergoing psychotherapy — experienced an average pain reduction of 52 percent.

ALL THE RAGE (Saved by Sarno) – Official Trailer for Dr. Sarno Documentary Video by rumurinc

John Ernest Sarno Jr. was born June 23, 1923, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to John Ernest Sarno, a printing press worker, and the former Delia Astone, a homemaker. He grew up in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn and at 16 graduated from Newtown High School in Elmhurst, Queens. He repeated his senior year to attend, and graduate from, the private Horace Mann School in the Bronx.

He went on to Kalamazoo College in Michigan and stayed for three years before leaving in 1943 to join the Army. He worked in field hospitals in Europe for the remainder of World War II.

Dr. Sarno received his medical degree from Columbia University in 1950 and spent nearly a decade in family practice in Fishkill, N.Y., where he founded the Mid-Hudson Medical Group. He returned to New York in 1960 for a residency in pediatric medicine at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center and then another residency at the Institute of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at N.Y.U.

He joined N.Y.U.’s Rusk Institute for Rehabilitation Medicine in 1965 and practiced there until his retirement in 2012. For 10 years, he directed Rusk’s outpatient department but was not reappointed after he started delving more deeply into mind-body concepts.

His other books include “The Mindbody Prescription: Healing the Body, Healing the Pain”; “The Divided Mind: The Epidemic of Mindbody Disorders”; and “Mind Over Back Pain.”

A wiry 5 foot 3 inches tall, Dr. Sarno almost invariably wore a Brooks Brothers shirt and tie under his lab coat. Eschewing computers, he wrote patients letters in elegant cursive with his treasured Mont Blanc fountain pen. He frequented the ballet and the Philharmonic, and would often hum along to the opera tunes he played on his office radio.

Dr. Sarno’s first marriage, to Penny Patt, ended in divorce in 1966. He married Martha Lamarque, the former director of speech pathology at the Rusk Institute, in 1967. She survives him.

Besides Ms. Horner, their daughter, he is also survived by three children from his first marriage, Lindianne, Lauren and David; a brother, Modesto; four grandchildren, and one great-grandson.

Dr. Sarno expressed disappointment that his ideas had never been widely accepted by his peers, and he acknowledged that many had been chilly toward him.

By contrast, his relationship with his patients was largely one of mutual affection.

On his living room table, he kept a thick scrapbook given to him by members of TMS Wiki, a support forum. In its pages, both patients and strangers wrote about experiencing years of pain before stumbling across Dr. Sarno’s writings; some posted recent photos of themselves running marathons and climbing mountains.

“Since 1982 I’ve used your books to help almost one hundred friends and acquaintances,” wrote one former pain sufferer. “In a just world you’d have the Nobel Prize for medicine.”

Correction: June 27, 2017

An obituary on Sunday about Dr. John E. Sarno, the author of books on the psychological origins of chronic pain, gave an outdated reference in some editions to Dr. Christopher Gharibo’s title at the Langone Medical Center at New York University. He is a pain management specialist there, no longer the medical director of pain medicine at the Hospital for Joint Diseases.

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