25 years ago Thomas Hanna, PhD, wrote in his book, Somatics, that 85% of adults suffer from back pain. That statistic hasn't changed, (8 out of 10 people in the United States suffers at one time or the other with back pain), and little has been done to educate doctors or patients about the root cause of most back pain: the brain and the way in which it senses and controls the back muscles. I was inspired to write this blog post because of a familiar advertisement in my Sunday New York Times for a back pain center in New York City that does less invasive back surgery: safest procedure, NO cutting, NO bleeding, NO drilling, NO scarring! The missing piece to this advertisement is "no sensible information about why your muscles are causing you pain!"
From my clinical experience many back surgeries could be prevented with some basic understanding of why back muscles become tight and painful and how to release and relax them. Back pain is not as mysterious as we are led to believe.
Surgery can be life saving, yet one study that looked at recovery rates for certain back pain surgeries concluded that "intensive rehabilitation" is, over time, more effective than surgery.
Somatic Education is the least invasive solution to back pain available.
Most chronic back pain develops over time as an habituated response to stress. The Landau Response (also referred to as the Green Light Reflex in Hanna Somatic Education) is a brain stem reflex that is triggered whenever we are called upon to get something done - answer the phone, write emails, rush around, pay attention... hurry up!
Our back muscles, from the base of the skull down to the sacrum/tailbone contract, spurring us into action. These muscles also contract to allow us to run, jump, walk, and engage in vigorous, fun activities. If, however, these muscles are never taught to relax and release on a daily basis, they can end up constantly "switched on" and tight, painful, and sore.
This Green Light Reflex (also known as the Landau Response) is first triggered at the age of about five months, when a baby discovers his back muscles. All of the muscles on the back of the body contract - the neck muscles, rhomboids between the shoulder blades, upper trapezius, gluteals - to pick the head up. From that moment onward, for the rest of that person's life, those back muscles will reflexively contract whenever there is a need to respond to a task.
There is nothing wrong with this reflex; it merely prepares us for an action. However, in today's world, this reflex is triggered so continuously that, for many people, it gradually begins to habituate. Our brain literally teaches our back muscles to stay contracted and "frozen" in a constant state of readiness (the photo at right shows a typical green light reflex posture).
If left unchecked, constantly contracted back muscles can lead to structural problems - herniated discs, bulging discs, and sacroiliac pain.
The prevalence of back pain has everything to do with the kind of lives that we live and the kind of society in which we live. In fact, we know that the areas where there is greater stress… namely urban industrial societies, we have the highest incidence of lower back pain.
–Thomas Hanna, PhD
This particular pattern of Sensory Motor Amnesia is reversible with a daily routine of Somatic Exercises. Somatic Exercises teach you to reeducate your muscles through slow, gentle, safe movement. You begin to regain voluntary control of muscles that have learned (due to stress adaptation) to stay tight and painful. You can learn the most important Somatic Exercises you will ever need to reverse and eliminate chronic back pain on my DVD, Pain Relief Through Movement.
Try these Somatic Exercises for back pain relief: