The Mystery of "Muscle Knots" Solved: Sensory Motor Amnesia

There is some confusion as to what "muscle knots" are and where they come from. This article from the New York Times posits: "How do they happen and how can they be prevented? Are they harmful and should they be treated?" Allow me to answer these questions in the simplest way possible:

"Muscle knots" are not mysterious; they are areas of Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA)

Sensory Motor Amnesia is habituated muscle tension that develops when we become habituated to stress and/or certain ways of moving. These areas of accumulated, learned muscular tension are stuck at the level of the central nervous system and cannot, physiologically, release and relax.

If you've ever had back, neck or shoulder pain and gone to a massage therapist to work the knots out of your back, only to have the knots return, it seems that there is little that can be done. Not so. The reason these knots seem to stick around despite the best massage therapist's effort, and why they don't show up on scans and MRIs is because what is happening in the muscle is a neurological event in the brain - a functional problem of the sensory motor system. SMA is not a medical problem that can be diagnosed through conventional medical methods. It is a functional  problem of the sensory motor system that can be easily "unlearned" through Hanna Somatic Education.brain-side

Muscle knots can be prevented first and foremost by understanding how SMA develops in your brain due to repetitive stress responses and/or repetitive, habituated movement habits. Muscles have two functions: contract and relax. When muscles can no longer fully relax this is an indication that you have accumulated muscle tension that you are no longer fully aware of. The only way to fully release these "knots" is to make sure that the brain is fully in control of the muscles.

Muscles knots are only harmful when they get in the way of free, efficient movement.

Movement is medicine, movement is life, and painful muscle tension can cause you to move less efficiently and, for most people, minimize the amount of movement you do. In order to live a healthy, free life we need to be able to move strongly, vigorously, and with endurance for as long as we live. If you're not planning on moving a lot then muscle knots won't hurt you. The lack of movement will, however.

Treatment of tight muscles doesn't work. Reeducation of tight muscles does.

If you want to untie a knot, you must look at the cord carefully then gently undo the tangle. Yanking on the cord will only make the knot tighter.

- Thomas Hanna

Muscle knots can't really be "treated" successfully - for the long term.  Treatment is what bodyworkers and doctors do when they attempt to fix tight muscles (or postural imbalances) from the outside; there are therapists who can help provide short term relief, yet muscle tension Pandiculation demonstrated (1)develops from the inside out (Sensory Motor Amnesia) and, since humans are self-regulating, self-sensing beings, not cars or bicycles that need fixing, their muscles must be educated so they can contract and release fully in order to get rid of muscle knots.

Through active involvement of the brain - rather than through manual manipulation - people can more easily and safely learn to  eliminate muscle knots, restore full muscle function in all planes of gravity and prevent them from coming back by doing three simple things:

  • Become aware of your daily movement habits and reflexive responses to stress. Repetitive contraction of muscles without full relaxation creates muscle knots.
  • Learn to pandiculate instead of stretch. Animals pandiculate up to 40 times a day!
  • If you have chronic muscle tension, learn how to eliminate your patterns of Sensory Motor Amnesia with a daily routine of Somatic Exercises**

Muscle knots are not an inevitable part of life; they are a symptom of stress adaptation.

**You can also learn to eliminate your patterns of SMA through a series of hands-on clinical Somatics sessions with a skilled and certified practitioner.

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

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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.