Book Review: Mind Over Back Pain
By John Sarno, MD
This is an odd little book that after reading left me quite confused as to what the author was attempting to accomplish. Though a bit old at this point (it was printed in 1984), it presents some revolutionary ideas about the causes of back pain, and suggests that there are startling non-medical methods of treatment. Through his use of simple language and non-medical writing, Dr. Sarno makes this book understandable to all, yet useful to none. Mind Over Back Pain does not seem to have any particular aim other than to give a small introduction to his theory. This book does not have any particular group that could make use of its information.
This short book is a discussion of Dr. Sarno’s experiences with back pain, and a condition he calls Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS) that he feels is the cause of most back pain. The first two chapters discuss back pain as it is currently known. Chapters three and four are about TMS itself, and the final chapter supposedly deals with treatment and cures. The last chapter is what would interest most people, but it is also the chapter that contains the least amount of information. At no point does Dr. Sarno come out and explicitly state how to cure TMS. He merely alludes to changes in mind and ambiguously refers to physical therapy. I would imagine that anyone who picks up this book is either suffering from back pain, or a medical expert seeking new cures to the problem. Since there is no real discussion of the treatment or cure of TMS, the overwhelming majority of people who this book should be aimed at have no reason to read this book.
In Mind Over Back Pain, Dr. Sarno states that it has been medically proven that stress can affect the circulatory system. His particular theory on back pain is that the problems with circulation from stress cause poor circulation to and from muscles, which leads to oxygen deprivation and a buildup of waste materials in muscles, thereby causing intense pain. By asserting a direct connection between a state of mind and medical condition, Dr. Sarno is touching on ground that many are afraid to tread. Even today, connections between psychology and medicine are considered controversial and hotly disputed.
When making such an enormously disputable, one must back it up with evidence; opinions alone are not enough to sway minds. The book falls rather short here, as it offers only a handful of cases, and very little statistical evidence. Furthermore, some of the numbers offered can be considered suspect, as they appear to be from specially handpicked groups of his patients. Quite often, Dr. Sarno gives evidence from memory which is unacceptable for any sort of proof. I am not disputing whether or not Dr. Sarno’s theories are correct, but he does not offer anywhere near the necessary evidence to convince me of TMS being the cause of back pain. This lack of evidence combined with the easy language leads me to suspect that this book is not aimed at medical professionals. With its complete lack of curative information, however, this book is obviously not aimed at the layman either. As such, I have absolutely no idea who should be reading this book.
I am giving Mind Over Back Pain an Avoid rating. Although Dr. Sarno has many interesting ideas on the problem of chronic back pain, he fails to provide enough evidence to effectively convince anyone, or to explain how to cure it. His theory of TMS did sound perfectly plausible, and I would definitely be interested in hearing about his treatment, but I cannot get enough information from this book to judge TMS’s legitimacy or determine how to fix it. Dr. Sarno has written a follow-up book, Healing Back Pain, which I have not yet read. If that book does indeed indicate how to cure TMS, then there is absolutely no reason for this book to still be on the market, and there is certainly no reason to read it.
Mind Over Back Pain gets a poor 42 thumbs up.