Film and TV

Boulder Doctor Champions Pain Treatment That Trades Opioids for Love

Dr. Mark Strom is based in Boulder.
Dr. Mark Strom is based in Boulder.
Opioid abuse has reached crisis levels in Colorado and the country as a whole, in part because more and more people prescribed the medication by their physicians are becoming addicted to it. But this particular problem can't be pinned on Boulder-based Dr. Mark Strom, who'll be taking part in a Q&A in conjunction with All the Rage, a new documentary making its Denver debut at the Alamo Drafthouse tonight, April 25.

"I won't prescribe opioids, period," says Strom, whose current methodology, as used in his Pain Partners Colorado practice, mirrors the approach taken by the late Dr. John Sarno, the man at the center of All the Rage. "So don't come to me if you want a prescription to opioids. We're going to take care of your problem by helping you think about things differently — helping you think about yourself with empathy and understanding."

Strom's opioid-free approach is certainly controversial. He believes chronic pain whose root can't be found using conventional medical methods is often caused by what he sums up as "repressed rage." Once a patient comprehends this on a psychological level, Strom argues that he or she can usually be freed of agony without opioids or any other medication. And he's got years of experience to back up his assertions.

"I remember seeing somebody who had been wheelchair-bound for ten years," he recalls. "She came into my office once, and after seeing me, she literally walked out of the office. I've seen that kind of thing over and over again."

Stories like this one will be hard for many folks to believe, Strom acknowledges. But plenty of prominent people swear by Sarno's system. Among those who sing his praises in All the Rage are radio personality Howard Stern, comedian, writer and Seinfeld co-creator Larry David, and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. But no one is a bigger booster than Strom, who says, "John Sarno was a person who was very near and dear to me. Anything I can do to help people learn about him is my absolute pleasure. I wish he was still alive."

click to enlarge Howard Stern and Larry David as seen in the new documentary All the Rage, debuting in Denver tonight. - COURTESY OF ADRESTIA MEDIA
Howard Stern and Larry David as seen in the new documentary All the Rage, debuting in Denver tonight.
Courtesy of Adrestia Media
Although Strom spent much of his career as a cardiac heart surgeon, he subsequently transitioned into alternative-pain treatment with a focus on acupuncture. As a result, he knew of Sarno, who was then in his eighties and living in New York, and after convincing one of his patients to see him, "I went along with her — and I initially thought, this guy's a quack. But she saw him on a Monday, and by Wednesday, she was pain-free."

After that, Strom continues, "I spent hours with him. I was there when he wrote [2007's] The Divided Mind, which is the last book he wrote, and spent three or four months with him as he saw patients every Monday. Then he started sending me patients, which is how I got started. I basically built a little Sarno practice, and we became very well acquainted — and I started to see the same kinds of results he was seeing."

According to Strom, "the amount of satisfaction I was getting from quickly making patients better was something I can compare to doing heart surgery on people. I would have patients who were very ill, who couldn't walk, who couldn't work, and they'd suddenly get better."

Along the way, he realized that "Sarno had created his own style of psychotherapy — and even though he was physically small, not even five feet tall, he was a giant. He'd walk into a conference room in the bowels of NYU surrounded by people, and afterward, they'd talk about him as if he was William Halsted or Michael DeBakey — with a sense of awe."

Since then, multiple studies have confirmed that Sarno's techniques really do help many patients. When Strom is asked to describe them, he does so in simple terms: "The explanation is honesty and intimacy, basically. A lot of people with chronic pain are people who had difficult childhoods, difficult relationships with parents and their pairs — and our culture is not set up for the kind of intimacy that leads to understanding. But what John did, and what I try to do, is to do whatever it takes to make a patient feel better in terms of attention and love."

click to enlarge Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is another believer in the chronic-pain treatment pioneered by Dr. John Sarno. - COURTESY OF ADRESTIA MEDIA
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is another believer in the chronic-pain treatment pioneered by Dr. John Sarno.
Courtesy of Adrestia Media
Not that Strom rejects more conventional medical knowledge out of hand.

"The first step is to be sure the patient doesn't have a demonstrable traditional Western disease: cancer, Parkinson's. It's a diagnosis of exclusion. Then, once you've determined that, you proceed down the second path. But in either case, it's important that a patient believe that you understand that their pain, whether it's from cancer or mind-body issues, is real pain — that it's as real to them as any other thing. That's very much a different attitude."

An added benefit from this way of working, in Strom's view, is that it undermines the over-prescription mania that can lead to opioid abuse: "Very frequently, patients go from doctor to doctor, and each time, they're told, 'I don't know what's wrong, but I'm happy to give you a pill.' But we've witnessed what happens when people try to get a quick fix from a pill."

Instead, he prefers to prescribe "love — which may seem like a strange word to use about something like this. But oftentimes that's what's missing from the lives of people who evolve these chronic problems: love and attention and empathy and caring and understanding. And that's a lot more powerful than any pill."

All the Rage unspools at the Alamo Drafthouse, 4255 West Colfax Avenue, at 7:30 p.m. tonight with Strom's Q&A scheduled immediately afterward. Click for more information about the screening.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts