Scoliosis - The Ultimate Trauma Reflex

In one of my recent Essential Somatics® workshops in London, a student told me about a friend with scoliosis. “The poor girl has been dealing with back problems for a long time. The doctor told her that her scoliosis was genetic and there's nothing he can do for her,” he said.

So is scoliosis genetic?

In 2007, the first possible genetic link to scoliosis was discovered. The defect in the CHD7 gene has been tied to idiopathic scoliosis (which means there is no known cause), so how much does this discovery actually help? I've worked with many people with scoliosis and have long wondered if there's a genetic propensity in families toward scoliosis. The article states:

Although scientists have known for years that scoliosis runs in families, its pattern of inheritance has remained unclear. That’s because the condition is likely caused by several different genes that work in concert with one another — and the environment — to cause scoliosis.

The key words for me here are "and the environment." From a Somatic Education perspective, the way we reflexively react and adapt to stress is what can determine whether or not one develops scoliosis.

I enquired more about my student's friend and learned that she fell down an entire flight of concrete stairs and landed on her coccyx when she was younger. He told me, "She's never been the same since."

Scoliosis and the Trauma Reflex

Thomas Hanna theorized that scoliosis developed due to an habituation to what he termed the Trauma Reflex. This reflex occurs instantly in response to a sudden accident or injury (slipping on a patch of ice, falling down the stairs, etc.) and the need to avoid pain or injury. It can also develop gradually (limping, using crutches, wearing a medical boot after an injury/surgery, etc.) as you compensate until your injury is fully healed.

The trauma reflex involves all the trunk rotators of the core (latissimi dorsi, obliques, abdominals, abductors, adductors) - muscles that twist, rotate, and bend to the side in order to retract from the site of the injury or accident. It is a useful and completely involuntary reflex that, once conditioned and habituated, teaches the waist muscles that attach into the pelvis to stay tighter on one side than the other. The pelvis will twist, and the hips will become slightly tilted and out of balance. What develops in response to this imbalance is a compensatory tightening in the shoulders and ribcage. The fall my student’s friend suffered is indeed a serious accident and a perfect example of just the kind of trauma that could lead to scoliosis.

Somatic Exercises can help release the tight muscles that contribute to scoliosis.

I have worked with many clients who have scoliosis in the family and even more who are the only ones in their family ever to suffer from this condition. Every one of them shares one thing in common: a traumatic accident/slip/fall before or during adolescence.

While scoliosis is complicated to address, and best addressed through private clinical sessions, there are specific Somatic Exercises that can begin to release the muscles that are the most complicit in the pattern of scoliosis:

  1. Back lift
  2. Cross lateral arch and curl
  3. Side bend
  4. Washrag
  5. Steeple twist
  6. Walking exercises - part 1 & 2
  7. Shoulder and hip circles (from Pain-Free Leg and Hip Joints)

The first 6 exercises in the above list are from my Pain Relief Through Movement DVD.

Here's a tip for more efficient learning:

When doing the Steeple Twist, focus on lengthening the waist muscles, releasing the sides of the waist, expanding the ribcage, and allowing the pelvis to rock – be aware of any arching in your back and do not over-arch. In doing the "steeple hands" part of the exercise, the focus is on gently expanding and twisting the ribcage and shoulders as you lengthen from deep in the latissimus muscles. If you don't know this exercise and you have scoliosis, it's time to start learning the basics of Somatic Exercises!

Martha teaches specialty workshops, conducts private clinical sessions, and presents to trainers, and medical professionals wishing to learn more about how Hanna Somatic Education can help their clients and patients to get long term pain relief safely, sensibly and easily.