3 Tips to Deal with Recurring Muscle Pain

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If you've had tight muscles for a very long time, doing a few Somatic Movements or having one Clinical Somatics session will not make your muscle pain disappear overnight. These muscles have learned to remain "stuck" and contracted due to messages from your brain in response to trauma, stress, and postural compensations. It takes time to adjust to moving easily and efficiently again, while also absorbing the new sensory feedback you are experiencing. But what if you have already had several clinical sessions and are pain free, and old, nagging pain keeps coming back? Here are the top three tips for dealing with recurring muscle pain.

Tip 1: Do your Somatic Movement practice every day

When it comes to creating a new habit, repetition is key. You may find that, after a clinical session or a few Somatic Movements, you move more efficiently, have improved breathing, and a drastic reduction of functional muscle pain, but this does not mean that you have been "cured." Despite your newfound freedom of movement, your brain simultaneously wants to take you into your old habits (e.g. the way you slouch at your computer). These old habits are more familiar to your brain than the new, more relaxed and efficient movement that you have created through your somatic movement practice. Changing long terms habits takes time and patient repetition, so get on your mat and start moving!

Tip 2: Do a self check-in throughout the day

To have the effects of your daily Somatics practice last longer, it's critical to address your daily movement habits and be patient with gradual improvement. Being conscious of the way you walk, stand, or do any given daily activity is just as important. As you go about your day, check in with yourself (especially if you begin to feel pain or discomfort). Ask yourself

  • How you sit. Do you slump back on your pelvis, sit overly arched, or slightly twisted?
  • How you stand. Do you stand with an arched back, slumped chest, or more weight on one foot?
  • How you sleep. Do you curl yourself inward in a fetal position or lie relaxed on your back? 
  • How you walk. Do you step heavier on one foot than the other? Do you scuff your feet or walk on your toes? What part of your foot strikes the ground first?

Tip 3: Make the connection

Become aware of how your thoughts create muscle tension or spaciousness. Ask yourself why. Why do you slump at your desk at work? Why do you feel tense when you're driving? Why is your back arched when you are walking? Is there an underlying emotion attached to your actions?

Try this: Keep a journal of your somatic practice for two weeks. Write down which movements you do in your morning and evening practice. Write a few sentences about how you felt that day and what changes you felt. At the end of two weeks reflect back on your journal and note how many days you followed through on your practice. Then make the connection between your practice and what you felt in your body – emotionally and physically.

A patient, persistent practice will create new habits of awareness, posture and movement. The more consistent you are in applying your new awareness to all areas of your life, the more natural it will be. 

BONUS TIP: Take the Fundamentals Immersion Course

To delve deeper into your Somatics practice, participate in a Fundamentals Immersion Course, taught by a skilled Somatic practitioner. Over two days, you will integrate new changes to help you break through to the source of your recurring issue whether it be mental, emotional, physical, or occupational.

Register now for a Fundamentals Immersion Course near you!

How To Counteract The Dangers of Too Much Sitting

Thankfully, more is being written about the dangers of sitting. And this YouTube video says it all. I questioned the usefulness of chairs a while ago after learning more about functional evolutionary movement. Doctors and scientists are beginning to observe - and accept - what Somatic Educators have known for years: humans are meant to move, in many different ways and planes of gravity - they are not meant to sit for long periods of time without moving. Movement helps to embed learning, enhances creativity and, most importantly, keeps the respiratory, circulation, lymphatic and  muscular systems moving efficiently. It also reinforces basic movement patterns that we all need to maintain in order to keep ourselves moving freely for the rest of our lives.

Dr. James Levine, is quoted in the Business Week article as saying,

"What fascinates me is that humans evolved over 1.5 million years entirely on the ability to walk and move. And literally 150 years ago, 90% of human endeavor was still agricultural. In a tiny speck of time we've become chair-sentenced."

Most people sit one of two different ways - slumped in their chair or pitched forward. 32Sit as I am in the photo at right - slumped - and notice in your own body how:

  • the muscles of the front of the body contract as you hunch. Your breathing is shallow (because your chest is collapsed)
  • the back muscles are tight in co-contraction
  • the neck muscles, both front and back, tighten as your head moves forward (and/or down) to look at your computer screen

Sit pitched slightly forward and notice now:

  • IMG_6834the muscles of your hip joints tighten at the creases in your groin
  • your lower back contracts (feel them with your own fingers)
  • your neck muscles tighten
  • now, keeping that position, look at your computer!

This is what millions of people do every day... all day!

People who sit for long periods generally complain of low back pain, neck and shoulder pain, TMJ and hip joint pain. This, unfortunately, makes sense, because sitting is a repetitive task that teaches the muscles (that only learn through repetition) to stay contracted. Sitting contributes to Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA), the condition of chronically contracted muscles that, due to habituation and compensation to stress, have learned to stay involuntarily and constantly contracted. If your muscles are full of tension, ready for the next day of sitting, nothing will relax those muscles unless you get the brain back in control of the muscles.

Try these Somatic Exercises at your desk to reduce and release muscle tension

Below are a few simple and safe movements that will remind your muscles that they don't have to stay "frozen" all day long. These movements are from my easy to follow Pain-Free At Work DVD. Instead of stretching as you do these movements, you are pandiculating - gently tightening into the tight , tense muscles (this takes the muscles off cruise control) and then actively and slowly lengthen the muscles into their full range. This awakens the brain to sense the muscles again so it can lengthen them into their full range. It is what cats and dogs do upon waking and before they move into action. Don't forget to breathe easily.

ARCH AND CURL

Screen shot 2013-09-23 at 4.19.01 PMScreen shot 2013-09-23 at 4.19.23 PMArch and curl your back as you sit. Go slowly and gently, inhaling as you arch, and exhaling as you round.

Both of these movements can be done standing. Try them, play with them and see how they feel.

 

WASHRAG

Screen shot 2013-09-23 at 4.14.58 PMRoll your shoulders forward and back, allowing the shoulder blades to slide along the back. Do this as if you were yawning.

Same with this one: try it while standing.

 

STANDING REACH

Screen shot 2013-09-23 at 4.14.33 PMStand next to your desk and reach up, as if reaching to the top shelf for something. Repeat this slowly on the other side.

 

 

 

 

Walk to work if you can. Stand at the counter and work at your laptop (as I'm doing this very moment). Change your position and notice the difference between your hips and back when you stand versus when you sit. Use every opportunity you can to not sit, but to bring movement into your life. And when you do feel the need to sit, go back to my blog post about chairs and read it. Consider sitting on the ground and making your chair the exception instead of the rule.

Click here to purchase my Pain-Free DVD series. Click here for my book, Move Without Pain.

How Somatic Exercises Can Teach You To Get Rid of "Degenerative Disc Disease"

I recently read an article about Mike Crawshaw, a young British singer, who stated that his "spine is crumbling" and to avoid any potential harm through surgery, he chose to exercise. One doctor is quoted as saying, ‘The right kind of exercise can be helpful. You can strengthen the back muscles that support everything. This helps deal with the spasms in the affected muscles that cause pain. It’s possible to help with these problems without surgery.’ Crawshaw made the best decision for himself by finding a way to strengthen his back muscles. The doctor's statement, however, isn't completely correct; strengthening back muscles "to support everything" will not help deal with muscle spasms in the areas that cause pain. If back muscles are stuck in a state of heightened tension that pulls the discs closer together, you are more likely to "strengthen your pain" than to relieve it.

First here is a perspective on degenerative discs from a Somatic Education perspective. Then we will discuss strengthening the back in order to "support" the allegedly weak spine:

Is a "degenerative disc" caused by a disease process or is it a case of poor muscle function, which results in compressed, herniated and otherwise weakened discs?  The label "degenerative disc disease" sounds like a pathology that supposedly develops with age. Yes, arthritic changes can emerge due to age, poor diet, lack of sufficient water, lack of movement and overuse injuries; all of these can contribute to disc problems.  Most "degenerative discs" that I have seen in my practice are another example of Sensory Motor Amnesia, which can be eliminated when one learns to regain control of one's muscular system, improve nervous system function of the muscles, and restore muscle length.

Muscles put pressure on discs. Release the tight muscles and the discs have more room to move.

In an X-ray, discs that are squeezed tightly together look as if they're X-rayabout to crumble, causing the spine to buckle like an unstable building. Look at the X-ray on the right. Notice how one disc (the black arrow) has a lot of space, while the other (white arrow) is squeezed together. It doesn't look good, does it? The spaces between the discs are uneven and the spine is being pulled into an uneven "archer's bow," which gives the appearance of excess pressure on the lower vertebra (white arrow).

But what exactly pulls the spine into this shape? The muscles, of course.

 

And why would the muscles pull on the spine like this? They are stuck in what Thomas Hanna called the "Green Light Reflex," a reflex that contracts the muscles to prepare them for action. This reflex, like all reflexes is simply an unconditioned response to stress. The problem occurs when it becomes conditioned and habituated; the brain can literally forget how to relax the muscles. Here's the thing: you can't see muscles on an X-ray; all you can see is the result of the bones being pulled by the muscles.

Never strengthen something you can't feel.

Degenerative disc disease is a functional problem of the sensory motor system, not dissimilar to many other musculoskeletal problems that are deemed structural by the medical world. Once you lose awareness of your movement and how the way in which you respond and adapt to stress (mentally, emotionally and physically) you, too, may develop problems with your discs. There is a solution that doesn't involve surgery: Clinical Somatic Education and Hanna Somatic Exercises.

We all need to be strong, so awareness of what you can and cannot feel and control in your body is the first step to strengthening. The second step is to regain full muscle function and length. Once this is achieved, your brain now works with a muscle that is not being restricted by Sensory Motor Amnesia. Think of it this way: moving with Sensory Motor Amnesia is like trying to drive with the emergency brake on. Once Sensory Motor Amnesia is eliminated, create an enjoyable strengthening routine and be sure to include Somatic Exercises as a warm-up and cool-down to maintain optimum muscle function.

The Link Between Neck Pain and Computer Work

The photo at right is a classic example of today's typical "computer slouch."

Look at the angle of the neck, the slump of the chest, and the rounded shoulders. If you sit like that long enough, you will develop neck, shoulder, and back pain. You might even find it difficult to take a full breath. This is called the Startle Reflex. Thomas Hanna called it the Red Light Reflex.

It is rare to meet someone nowadays who doesn't spend significant amounts of time on the computer.

Even senior citizens are now reconnecting with old friends, not to mention staying in touch with grandchildren, via Facebook and email. Children are beginning to use computers on a daily basis, both in school and at home - often in place of outdoor play. Hundreds of millions of people work at computer terminals, often for hours at a stretch without getting up.

Any repeated movement or posture becomes a habit.

If you have to sit for hours, with elbows bent, wrists immobile and fingers typing rapidly, the brain will teach the muscles to be ready to sit and type again, in just the same manner, the next day. The wrists will be tight, the biceps tighter than usual to hold the arms steady and the neck will hold your head right where it needs to be in order to look at your computer screen. Eventually this learned posture can lead to muscular pain, TMJ, carpal tunnel syndrome, back, neck, and shoulder problems. This state of chronically contracted muscles is called Sensory Motor Amnesia. No amount of strengthening and stretching can get rid of this. You must learn how to sense and move your muscles again in order to regain freedom of movement and reverse this posture.

Children have the same potential as adults to become stuck in an habituated, slumped posture - one that tightens the chest, restricts breathing, overuses the back, neck, and shoulder muscles, and can eventually lead to postural dysfunction and muscular pain. They are learning, at an increasingly young age, to slump and tighten the front of their body as they play video games or use their iPads. Encouraging children to spend time outdoors moving - running, riding bicycles, jumping, climbing trees, playing - will go a long way in keeping a child aware of his body and healthier in the long run.

Here are a few helpful Somatic Exercises you can do at your desk every hour. They will teach you to release, relax, and lengthen your muscles - and eliminate neck and shoulder pain - while increasing body awareness.

The Flower - This movement teaches the muscles of the front of the body to release and lengthen so you can stand up to a relaxed and balanced neutral again. This will also help you breath more deeply and fully.

Here are some neck pandiculations that help me when I have to spend time at the computer:

Turn your head to the right at a 45 degree angle.

Slowly tighten your left shoulder up toward the ear, as you slowly tighten your neck back toward the left shoulder blade.

You'll feel a contraction at the top of the shoulder and on the left side of the neck.

Slowly lengthen out of the contraction, and allow the neck to lengthen as the chin points to the right chest. The shoulder relaxes back to neutral.

Repeat 3 times, then do the same sequence on the other side.

Remember to move slowly for greater awareness in retraining your muscles to relax.

You are teasing out the muscle tightness, not by stretching, but by pandiculating - tightening first, then lengthening, much like a yawn. This movement should help you become more aware of the habit of hunching the shoulders. Once you're aware of a habit, it's more easily reversible.

How to Relieve Low Back Pain After Snow Shoveling

snow-shovelerThe East Coast is experiencing its first blizzard of the season. People are bracing (literally!) for the cold and getting their snow shovels and supplies ready. While I absolutely love snowstorms, and even consider snow shoveling an excellent workout, I can do without the low back and hip pain it can cause.

A few years ago after the last snows of a blizzard had subsided, my son came in from an afternoon of earning money shoveling snow.  “My back is killing me, Mom,” he told me. “I need a massage!” His back was in spasm and he desperately needed relief. I promised him a massage (I was a massage therapist for 25 years and gave it up after discovering Hanna Somatics), but only after he did a few Hanna Somatic Exercises.

Sounds cruel to deny your child a massage in such a situation, right? Not really. I knew that were I to massage his muscles while they were in spasm, they would become even tighter. A muscle in spasm is a muscle the brain can't control. If you press and knead that muscle or muscle group, it can contract back against your pressure, creating more muscle tension than before. This is called the “stretch reflex.” The stretch reflex is a protective, spinal cord reflex that contracts a muscle back against a stretch to save it from being traumatized or injured. Once that muscle's length and function is restored at the nervous system level a massage feels great and doesn't create tension.

I assured him his massage would be much more enjoyable once his brain reminded his muscles that they were no longer engaged in the arduous task of snow shoveling! After five minutes of Somatic Exercises and pandiculation he got up off the floor and, grudgingly, expressed amazement at how much better his back felt. Now, when his back is tight from shoveling, working out, or desk work, he does his Somatic Exercises and feels great.

Muscles spasms release more effectively with Somatic Exercises and pandiculation.

Here are the Somatic Exercises my son learned that taught his brain to regain control of the involuntarily contracted muscles that caused his back pain. To maximize the benefits, do these easy, safe Somatic Exercises before, and after, snow shoveling:

ARCH AND FLATTEN

This exercise teaches your brain to regain control of the back muscles. Gently contract the back muscles and roll the pelvis, and then slowly release your back, returning yourself to neutral. Go slowly and notice the pleasant wave-like feeling as your back moves from the base of your head all the way down to the tailbone.

ARCH AND CURL

Arch&Curl1

Arch&Curl2Arch&Curl3

  1. Lay on your back with your knees up and feet planted. Place your hands, with fingers interlaced, behind your head.
  2. Inhale and gently arch your lower back and tip your pelvis in the direction of your feet. This tightens the back muscles (only go as far as is comfortable and never force!).
  3. Exhale and slowly relax your back to the floor. When your back is flat, tuck your chin, point the elbows toward the knees, pick your head up, and slowly curl up as you contract the abdominal muscles.
  4. Inhale and slowly relax back to the floor.

Remember: this is not a sit-up! As you curl up, you are lengthening the back muscles as you tighten the belly. When you slowly come down, you are relaxing the abdominals.

SIDE BEND

This exercise relaxes the muscles of the trunk so that both sides of your waist muscles are relaxed and released. When we shovel snow we always tend to shovel on one side only. That twisting movement is a natural movement, yet when done while lifting wet, heavy snow it can cause a lot of muscle tension on one side of the body. The side bend will help you relax out of that twist once you are done shoveling.

WASHRAG

Enjoy lengthening and releasing the entire center of your body as you learn to gently “wring your body out like a washrag” – from your shoulders down to your hips.

These easy, safe movements can be done every day to keep your muscles remembering how to relax. The brain controls the muscles, therefore repetitive activities (such as snow shoveling) can teach your muscles to become rigid and “frozen.” The solution is to get your brain to remind your muscles how to relax again. All it takes is five minutes of gentle, aware Somatic Movement and those muscles will begin to relax and release.  Then you can go back outside in the snow and play!

Click here to purchase any of the Pain-Free Series of instructional Somatic Exercise DVDs.

Sedentary Living is a Dangerous State of Being

Frank Forencich is the author of Change Your Body, Change The World and other books about human movement, health, and physical happiness. He is a pioneer in the field of  functional training and health education and one of my favorite teachers. The "standing Somatics" movements in my book, Move Without Pain, were inspired by some of the fun and functional play-based movements I learned at his seminars.

Frank wrote a wonderful endorsement for my book. In addition, he sent a note to my publisher:

I would like to see you put this warning on an opening page: "Before beginning a program of physical inactivity, see your physician. This warning would make the essential point that inactivity is the abnormal state. Movement is biologically and medically normal. Sedentary 'living' is the dangerous exception that requires professional oversight. Until health publishers make this point clear, readers will continue to live in fear of physical movement. We need to step up." 

Good point.  And yes, I did add his warning in my book!

Normally, people are advised to consult their doctors before undertaking an exercise routine. However, movement is not the expertise of doctors. While they understand that inactivity causes myriad health problems, they don't know how to help those patients who begin to lose their freedom of movement.

Most of the people I work with have run the gamut of doctors, surgery, drugs, physical therapy, massage, dry needling, and core strengthening. By the time I see them they have diagnosed themselves - correctly - with Sensory Motor Amnesia.  They are aware that they have forgotten how to move freely and how to control their movement, but they don't understand how it happened.

So how does one begin to restore freedom of movement? And more importantly, how does one let go of the fear of movement?

Simple facts about the brain and muscle connection can unlock the "mystery" of chronic pain and limited movement.

Let's clear up a few misconceptions about how limited muscle pain and limited movement develop:

  1. Limited movement doesn't happen to you; it develops from the inside out. This is due to stress responses such as accidents, injuries, surgeries, and ongoing repetitive stress.
  2. Most muscle pain problems are not the result of weak or faulty structure; they are the result of a loss of proper muscle control at the brain level.
  3. Your brain responses to everything that happens to you by contracting muscles in full-body patterns and habits. In order to regain movement, you need to retrain your brain to retrain your muscles so they can release, relax, and move freely again. Only you can change what's happening in your own body!

For those who are embarking on a program of fitness training or exercise I would suggest that you go back to the basics first: add Hanna Somatic Exercises to your routine. Test yourself and see if you have voluntary control over the major muscles of your core: the back, waist, and 1-At the Top of Table Mountain, in the Mt. Baker region, Washington State IMG_6587abdominal muscles. This is the safest and simplest method to restore somatic awareness and muscles control. No forceful stretching or painful procedures involved. Somatic awareness and mastery of "the basics" is what will enable you to climb the stairs un-aided at 90-years-old, carry your own groceries, run, or play with your kids.

When you get back in touch with your muscles you will regain control, become aware of even the smallest movements, and improve your coordination, balance, and proprioception through daily Somatic exercises. These exercises remind your brain how to control your muscles without the interference of Sensory Motor Amnesia.

The more we move, the more choices we have. We can look at a situation and assess how we'd like our bodies to respond: jump, break a fall, climb, squat, walk, run, tiptoe, hike, dance, lift, throw, carry. Movement mastery means freedom to be creative in our movement and chosen activities, age notwithstanding.

Back Pain, X-rays, and Muscle Tension

A client recently sent me an interesting blog post about X-rays, chiropractors, and back pain.

Chiropractors and doctors consider back pain to be a structural  problem, when in fact most back pain is functional in nature.

Most doctors no longer learn the art of palpation, which familiarizes the practitioner with the function and tonus rate of the muscles, nor do they apply an understanding of the brain/muscle connection and how muscles become tight and stay tight/frozen. They tend to medicalize back pain. I agree with the writer that X-rays are a significant intervention that should be used only when a break or tear is suspected. When muscles become "frozen" and stop functioning properly, the best way to regain proper muscle function and improve proprioception is through movement reeducation such as Hanna Somatic Education.The muscles, which have learned to stay tight due to stress responses, need to be "woken up" at the brain level, so they can learn to relax.

So if you have tight muscles, muscle pain or dysfunction that is not part of a disease process, and wonder whether or not you need an X-ray to diagnose the problem, first try to move - bending, reaching, gently twisting. Notice how it feels - how you can and cannot move. This will begin to shed light on your problem and increase your own sense of body awareness. If you can move easily in one direction, but not the other, you probably have some "amnesic," tight muscles which, with some methodical and easy retraining, can learn to relax and function again as they are meant to. This will relieve your pain and save you money in the long run.

To learn the methods and movements that will teach you to reverse chronic muscle pain, increase awareness, control and flexibility of muscles, click here to buy my new, easy-to-follow instructional DVD.