My Pain-Body Solution

This eye-opening book excerpt chronicles one man’s awakening to victory in a difficult battle with undiagnosed pain.
Moody Landscape With Footpath Tracks And Dark Bare Trees Covered With Fresh Fallen Snow In Winter Mountain Forest On Cold Misty Morning


I had been living with pain for over a year and a half, seen seventeen different medical doctors, had dozens of images taken of my body, and had received two spinal injections and a full hip replacement. Unfortunately, after all that, I was no better off. I felt as if I was suspended in time, running out of options. The only solutions I’d been offered were either some sort of invasive procedure, like fusing my spine, or more injections, but that was more like a bandage than a cure. Was there no middle ground?

In June of 2018, Kaylee was spending the summer in Wyoming working as an intern for the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance.

Having her in Jackson was a good excuse for me to get back out to Wyoming. She’s always fun to be around. An exceptional athlete in high school, particularly in lacrosse, Kaylee excelled in everything she tried. She has a wonderful free spirit and sense of adventure. We share the love of road trips and live music. The first four days of my visit were great. I hiked each day with her and Mikey, who came from Bozeman to visit us. We were not bagging any high Teton peaks, but I was outside exercising in the wilderness, which always helped me find some relief from my anxiety and pain. Each time we set off on a new adventure, though, a part of me still worried that the anxiety and pain would return.

On the fifth day, some rainy weather rolled in. Mikey headed back to Bozeman, and I hung out at the condo while Kaylee worked. By midmorning, by myself, the pain in my legs and feet increased. I had just spent four days in a row hiking with essentially no issues. On the one day I took off to relax, the pain had returned. The sensation of cold electric currents was passing through me. The fear and anxiety followed.

I was unable to sleep that night. Though my feet were not bothering me at that point, I couldn’t stop worrying. What if the neurologist was wrong? What if I did have neuropathy? What if it was the stenosis, and the spinal surgeon and physiatrist were right?

Wide awake, I decided to grab the book my friend Carl had given me the previous year on how to live with chronic pain. Initially, I’d decided not to read it. After all, my goal was not to live with chronic pain, but to beat it. To my way of thinking, by reading the book I was accepting the pain. I did not want to believe that I would be living with pain for the rest of my life.

To be honest, my true belief was not that someday I would get better and therefore have no need to learn how to live with chronic pain. It was actually quite the opposite; I was scared to the core of my soul that I would never heal. Recognizing this fate frightened me more than anything.

I’d seen no evidence to believe I would heal. And while I still didn’t want to read the book and risk acknowledging my pain destiny, I had enough curiosity to turn the light on and take a peek. Worst case, I thought, perhaps it would put me to sleep.

I skipped the introduction and started right in with Chapter 1 of John Sarno’s Healing Back Pain. One of the first sentences caught my attention: The idea that pain means injury or damage is deeply ingrained in the American consciousness.

Interesting. Why were those some of the first thoughts he’d put on paper? It would take me months to truly understand the effect those words would have on me.

Sarno explained that Western medicine viewed the body as a complex machine and believed that any illness was brought on when something in that machine was broken. He thought the medical community had become overly reliant on imaging, test results, and the need of physical proof for anything to be valid.

I read on, wondering when he would get to the pages of practical tips that would help me. As usual, I was looking for the ultimate answer in the form of a quick fix. Show me some bullet points or a checklist that could simplify the nuances of living with pain.

I continued to read. He wrote that physicians “tend to make a sharp division between the things of the mind and the things of the body and only feel comfortable with the latter.”

Reading this brought to mind all the doctors I’d seen and their responses when I told them about how I was feeling. It felt invalidating for them not to acknowledge my comments about the stress and anxiety I’d been carrying with me. I had shared my anxiety level with all the doctors, not because I suspected that my anxiety was playing a role with my pain; that never really occurred to me. Without knowing it, at the time, I was hoping to be comforted. I was looking for someone, anyone, to put their hand on my shoulder and say, “It’s going to be all right.” Unfortunately, that never happened. Clearly, my experience mirrored exactly what Sarno was saying.

I paused for a moment, closed the book, and read the title again. Nowhere on the cover did it mention managing chronic pain. What I had failed to notice was the subtitle of the book: The Mind-Body Connection. I had been carrying this book with me for almost a year.

Why did I think it was all about living with and managing pain forever? Looking back, I now know it was my own fragile emotional state over my condition that had clouded how I saw and experienced the world around me. At that moment it became abundantly clear that the book was not about managing chronic pain; it was about healing a pain syndrome I’d never heard of before, Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS).

Ironically, the book I had grabbed to put me to sleep quickly became fascinating, so instead of dozing off, I made a cup of coffee, moved out to the couch, and continued reading. Sarno claimed that repressed emotions could cause physical pain. While part of me found the idea radical and appealing, a part of me wondered if I was just grasping for yet another solution as I’d done so many times before. Was this an excuse to avoid accepting that my body was failing me?

Regardless of the reason, I was drawn to Sarno’s theory because of his description of TMS. He was describing my pain. I recalled the neurologist in Boston who’d told me that anxiety can absolutely cause nerve pain. His remark connected to what Sarno was explaining in his book. As I continued to read, on each page something jumped out at me that I could relate to. I felt as if the book had been written about me, for my own healing.

Vocabulary I had become familiar with was showing up on the pages that I was quickly absorbing and turning. However, for once, the words didn’t scare me, but rather helped to demonstrate the scope of the syndrome: degenerative disc disease, butt pain, anxiety, spinal stenosis, frozen feet, nerve pain, structural issues, arthritis, neck pain, shoulder pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, and heartburn. So many things I had experienced!

Sarno went on to explain the importance of conditioning as it relates to TMS pain. And how the subconscious brain can make an association with a certain activity, such as sitting, and sitting will then initiate the pain response. I’d essentially become programmed to feel pain.

When I’d first pulled my hamstring, it was always worse sitting down. I couldn’t take my mind off it. Then the burning sensation on the side of my knee came. It was never a problem when I was skiing, but it was when I was sitting for Christmas mass. And then there had once been a traumatic frozen feet episode when I was sitting in my car, alone and scared. My symptoms began falling into place. Everything Sarno said described me to a T.

I was captivated by the book. As I read on, I learned that Sarno describes common patterns of pain and how it can become all-encompassing: “To some, the pain becomes the primary focus of their lives. They become obsessed.”

In hindsight, I see that my pain served two purposes. It was a distraction from emotional pain, but physical pain could also be viewed as a way my body was trying to get my attention: Over here. Remember me? Can I get some service, please?

According to Sarno, the physical pain is designed to create a distraction from those undesirable emotions. Sarno cites a number of case studies. Some had pain conditions similar to mine; others did not. But I could relate to all the stories, especially the hopelessness so many others had felt.

Many of Sarno’s examples were of people in extreme pain. While I had times when my pain was significant, I was more affected by constant pain rather than the degree of that pain. Nonetheless, emotionally, I was being torn apart. And as a result, I was falling apart physically.

In the chapter “The Psychology of TMS,” regarding the role of fear in TMS, Sarno wrote, “What things is the person afraid of or unable to do? Disability may be more important than pain, because it defines the individual’s ability to function personally, professionally, socially, and athletically.”

I was moved by these words. Right or wrong, I had defined myself as someone who loved the outdoors and being extremely active. That’s who I was. That’s what I did. It’s what I would talk about. I felt that my one true joy—enjoying outdoor activities—was being taken from me. And if that was taken from me, what would I do? What else was I capable of doing? I could relate to the emotions associated with the fear of having my life changed as a result of physical pain. But what I would come to learn is, how I chose to define myself controlled too much of my life. Changing how I viewed myself would require much unpacking on my part.

After reading many chapters, I suddenly felt a surge of positive energy run through me. I looked at the clock. Almost 11:00 p.m. That meant 1:00 a.m. back home in New Hampshire. Knowing Becky keeps the phone by her bed in case our kids need her, I sent her a quick text asking if she was awake. As I suspected, she replied pretty quickly. I told her to download Healing Back Pain by John Sarno ASAP. And I added, “I think I’ve finally figured out what’s wrong with me!”

Becky asked which chapter she should read: “I might be able to read that chapter without buying the book,” she texted.

I laughed. Becky, God bless her soul, often chooses the worst time to try to save money. I typed back in all caps: BUY THE WHOLE DAMN THING! LOL

Then, I remembered what time it was there. I told her to go back to sleep and we could chat the next morning. I continued to focus on the book, consuming each page, ravenous for more information. By the wee hours of the morning, I’d finished the entire thing. It’s ironic how the moment I accepted the reality of the situation — that I was experiencing chronic pain — I was able to open myself up to the possibility of a solution and a way out of my suffering.

Sarno’s recommended treatment strategies:

1. Think psychological, not physical.

2. Abandon all physical therapy.

3. Resume all physical activity.

Not wanting to lose any momentum with these concepts, I also took a picture on my iPhone of Dr. Sarno’s suggested Daily Reminders.

Some of those reminders included:

  • The pain is due to TMS, not to a structural abnormality.
  • TMS is a harmless condition, caused by my repressed emotions.
  • TMS exists only to distract my attention from emotions.
  • Since my back is basically normal, there is nothing to fear.
  • I must resume all normal physical activity.
  • I will shift my attention from the pain to emotional issues.
  • I must think psychological at all times, not physical.

I was all in. I needed to think psychologically. This would now be my course of treatment. I had seen so many doctors that past year and a half and still had pain. Now I wouldn’t need to go to any more appointments or search for explanations for my pain. I’d had my last image taken of my body. No more weekly massages. No more stretching obsessively. No more discussions about getting a platelet-rich plasma (PRP) or a stem cell injection in my spine.

In the light of Sarno’s theory, I found my mental energy getting pulled in two directions. I had my new course of treatment to follow, but I also thought more about Western medicine and how it had failed me. While they perhaps meant well, the Western practitioners had unknowingly taken me down the wrong road, effectively creating more fear for me to carry along the way. I had bought into the concept that the experts knew what was best for my body. But what if they didn’t? What if they were wrong?

Embracing my new treatment, I hiked with Kaylee each day.

This excerpt from My Pain-Body Solution: A Journey to the Other Side of Suffering is presented with the permission of River Grove Books. Visit or the book’s Amazon page to learn more and purchase a copy.

Michael James Murray was born and grew up in Sudbury, MA, and now lives in New Hampshire. He is an avid outdoorsman and loves to backcountry ski, fly-fish, hike, cycle and surf.

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