Got Pain? Maybe It's Sensory Motor Amnesia


In February 2008, Forbes magazine published an article about the massive increase in costs of back pain treatment (costs rose 65% between 1997-2005). And yet, over an eight-year period the 23,000 people included in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) study reported no improvement and some reported worsening effects.

Many different treatments are used to address back pain: surgery, spinal injections, and painkillers among them. The spending on painkillers alone rose 423% during the time this particular study was conducted. One would think the advances in technology, painkillers and varying operations would help to lower the occurrence (and re-occurrence) of back pain. Obviously, there is something missing in the traditional Western approach. They are treating the symptoms, not the source of the symptoms.

Hanna Somatic Education (HSE) (also known as Clinical Somatic Education), is neuromuscular movement re-education that teaches people to regain voluntary control of muscles that have become involuntarily and chronically contracted due to adaptation to accidents, injuries, surgeries, major illnesses or on-going/repetitive emotional or physical stress. That state of chronically tight muscles that won't let go is what Thomas Hanna referred to as SENSORY MOTOR AMNESIA. Sensory Motor Amnesia alters the way one not only moves, but how one experiences him/herself from within.

Hanna Somatic Educators teach people with chronic muscular pain (back, neck, shoulder, hip) to reverse the cycle of pain by reversing the little known condition of Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA). By improving the connection between the brain and the muscles people learn to regain sensation and motor control of muscles and movement. Clients rapidly reverse their cycle of pain for the long term. There is nothing mystifying about it – it’s all in the brain.

Those chronically tight muscles affect physical structure and alter posture and movement.

Examples of Sensory Motor Amnesia include:

  • chronic back pain
  • sciatica
  • leg length discrepancy
  • hip pain
  • altered gait
  • plantarfasciitis
  • piriformis syndrome
  • neck/shoulder pain
  • scoliosis

Those suffering from SMA lose their ability to release and relax muscles and move freely. This occurs on the level of the nervous system.  Just as the brain can teach us to ride a bike, throw a ball or eat with a spoon, it also teaches us to adapt to stress by altering our posture, gait, or movement. 

SMA occurs in reflexive, full body patterns of contractions that alter voluntary coordination, proprioception, and balance as they tighten joints and cause muscular pain. In SMA, the feedback loop between the brain and muscles goes into what can be described as"cruise control" or "auto-pilot," and makes it difficult to control these muscles freely.

Releasing muscle pain is an educational process. Because SMA is a learned, functional problem, it can thankfully be “unlearned.” Many cases of muscular pain – sciatica, scoliosis, frozen shoulder, uneven leg length or plantarfascitis – are viewed by most doctors as a structural problem. Somatic Educators view these conditions as functional problems, fixable through improvement of the sensory motor system. SMA cannot be reversed by through passive modalities such as massage, Rolfing, stretching or chiropractic. 

This is because the control center (your brain) taught your muscles to remain contracted, therefore the brain must be involved in retraining the muscle to release and relax again. It will not learn it through passive modalities. Granted, passive therapies have their benefits (increased blood flow, release of waste products from the body), but their benefit is short-lived. Improving sensory motor awareness and function lasts a lifetime.

Hanna Somatic Education teaches a technique used in no other form of Somatic Education: pandiculation. Instead of stretching in order to relax tight muscles, clients learn to re-set muscle length and improve motor function through the use of pandiculation (active lengthening from a contraction of a muscle group, similar to a yawn). This technique stimulates the brain and nervous system to release chronic muscle spasms so that the brain can take back voluntary control of otherwise involuntarily contracted muscles.

Emphasis is put on Somatic Exercises: a series of very gentle, easy self-care exercises that improve movement, balance, coordination, and flexibility. Through daily repetition these exercises create improved self-awareness, and self-monitoring, which increase one’s ability to be self-correcting in postural habits and overall movement.

Reversing Sensory Motor Amnesia addresses chronic muscle pain at its root cause – the brain – and the way in which the brain senses and controls movement. The implications for improving one’s overall health cannot be underestimated. Improved muscle function and body awareness translates into improved physiological health and the ability to be stress resilient and maintain physical independence and mobility as one ages.

In 2010, physiotherapists at the Sahlgrenska Institute in Gothenburg, Sweden found that individuals that experienced pain consquently limited their movement, which resulted in less body awareness and did nothing to alleviate their pain. When patients with back pain were taught “sensory motor learning” rather than “exercise therapy,” they had more confidence in their bodily awareness and no longer felt dependent on doctors to treat their back pain.

The findings at the Sahlgrenska Institute support the use of Somatic Education: movement re-education that relaxes tight, painful muscles as an evidence-based modality for treatment of back pain. Swedish physiotherapist Christina Schön-Ohlsson states that, "…inefficient movement patterns gradually become habituated even though the original injury or strain is no longer present." Somatic Education directly addresses this issue.


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