John E. Sarno’s Posthumous Promise

I have a feeling that, wherever he is, Dr. John Sarno is smiling, because he’s getting a lot of fantastic press. That wasn’t the case when he was alive and talking about “tension myoneural syndrome.” As I discuss in Crooked: Outwitting the Back Pain Industry and Getting on the Road to Recovery, despite the fact that he would consult with over 10,000 patients in the course of his long career, his superiors at the Rusk Institute of NYU Langone Medical Center assigned him an office in a dark basement, and his colleagues in the more profitable arenas of spine medicine — think surgery, radiology, shots and pills — made him the butt of jokes. Several years before he passed away, I had the opportunity to interview him twice. He was frank with me: He’d always wanted the approval of his peers, and he’d never gotten it. Today, the zeitgeist has changed, and Sarno is suddenly a seer, rather than “that wacko over at Rusk.”

  Dr. Rashbaum and I met up at  The Sound Distillery

Dr. Rashbaum and I met up at The Sound Distillery

Yesterday, reporter Julia Belluz at Vox published a great piece describing Sarno’s new relevance — and why he’s finally getting some respect. She mentions Crooked, and quotes me as saying, “What he (Sarno) recommended as treatment was essentially cognitive behavioral therapy — elimination of fear avoidant behavior and catastrophizing — before anyone had ever heard of it, and [this is] exactly what is being used now to treat patients with central sensitization.” For more about that, you may want to read a piece I wrote recently, about the relationship between the brain and the spine, in Aeon.

Last spring, filmmaker Michael Galinsky released All the Rage, which explores (among other topics) Galinsky’s personal interactions with Sarno, who helped him recover from terrible back pain. Today, I’m releasing the first podcast in a series called The Back Pain Industry Explained. This represents a special opportunity to get to know Dr. Ira Rashbaum, the NYU Langone physician who worked side by side with Dr. Sarno for several decades, and now fills his shoes.

Dr. Rashbaum tells some great stories about his work with Sarno. He also brings a more contemporary perspective, influenced by important developments in brain-scanning technology, that Dr. Sarno considered newfangled and not worth his time. Together, we explore better options for treatment.

I hope you’ll listen — and that you’ll come back often, because upcoming podcasts include conversations with a mattress maven, an influential spine surgeon who thinks most people should not have surgery, a yoga teacher who straightens out patients with severe scoliosis, the director of a chronic pain program that — wonders of wonders — helps taper patients with concomittent opioid additctions, and a physician/scientist who takes us inside the controversy surrounding the implantation of stem cells in the intervertebral discs of the spine.

Your suggestions for additional subjects are welcome, but keep in mind that this is an opportunity for thoughtful exploration, rather than a chance to make a sales pitch. See you in your podcast feed!