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…