I recently read a review about the book Playing Hard, Feeling Pain – Are Youth Sports Joyless, Over-competitive and Injury-plagued? by Dan Ackman. He writes about today’s overly competitive environment of youth sports, the result of which is a shockingly high rate of repetitive use injury for children as young as 10 years old. Apparently Olympian Michael Phelps’ sister Whitney, a national champion at the age of 14, had to “retire” from swimming due to a debilitating back problem. This story is especially troubling, not only because the hopes of a young athlete were dashed, but also because of the ensuing chronic pain that occurred due to over-training. An increasingly common procedure being done on teenage athletes is ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) surgery. This occurs mainly with basketball and soccer players. Because these athletes are still growing, ACL reconstruction holds its own risks; damage to growth plates can occur and create growth disturbances. Even Little League pitchers are sustaining overuse injuries due to the increasingly competitive nature of the sport.

Repetitive use injuries can happen at any age.  More and more clients tell me that they hurt themselves in a fitness class while attempting to do something that they thought they “should” be able to do. They figured that the only way to learn to be strong was to do something over and over and over again – even if it caused pain for days afterwards. Somatic Education, especially when learned at a young age, teaches increased awareness of muscles, movement and coordination. This knowledge can be applied to any sport or activity no matter the age. The first step to avoiding repetitive use injuries, whether sports related or due to the stress of sitting at a computer for eight hours a day, is to become aware of the repetitive movement or stress one is engaged in. When we repeat an action again and again – whether it is pitching a baseball or sitting slumped over our computer answering emails – our muscles learn to tighten in a specific pattern. The body adapts itself to that movement or posture, however uncomfortable, so that the next time you engage in that activity your body is ready!  If ignored, these patterns of muscular tension can become automatic and habituated. Over time they will produce the desired result (a good, fast pitch or the ability to sit still for hours), but the consequence just might be painful, tight, “unable to relax no matter what you do” muscles.

Repetitive use injuries can result in “Sensory Motor Amnesia,” a state of chronically contracted muscles that are no longer under the brain’s conscious control. The end result is diminished control over muscles and movements. Because the brain controls the muscles, however, patterns of muscular contraction are learned. This can produce a Derek Jeter or a Nadia Comenici. It can also produce chronic neck, back, or shoulder pain. One is good, the other not so good. The upside to this is that learned patterns of tightness can also be un-learned in order to prevent serious injury and increase recovery time in cases of accidents or injuries. Hanna Somatic Education teaches not only somatic awareness of muscles in movement, but also how to reverse a state of chronically tight muscles.

In my private practice and group classes more and more young people are coming to me with chronic muscular pain. This is a disturbing trend. Some have suffered the kinds of injuries Ackman cites in his book. The majority of them, however, are experiencing pain related to the loss of sensory motor control of their muscles: chronic back, neck, shoulder, knee pain, an inability to breath deeply and scoliosis (which can be the result of traumatic injury at a young age). In other words, even children in today’s stressful world are losing awareness of their movement and muscles. Heavy backpacks, too much slumping over computers, too little activity, too little sleep, and emotional stress are all factors.

Noreen Owens, Certified Hanna Somatic Educator, has written a book called Where Comfort Hides, about children and Somatic Education. Her goal is to introduce Somatic Education into the school system in New Hampshire in order to reach children and their parents before they create habits of muscular tension that can lead to health problems, and challenges with focus and concentration. She writes, “Because maintaining control of our muscles is the key to finding comfort in the body, it is important to every one of us to learn how to release, and prevent the accumulation of muscular tension. The place to begin is with children. If children learn to harness their body’s self-sensing, self-regulating and self-sensing nature, they will be less likely to develop stress related and shallow breathing related conditions and diseases as they become adults.”

If you have suffered a repetitive use injury, you might want to consider a few classes or sessions of Somatic Education in order to restore your muscular system to optimum health. For those parents whose children are complaining of headaches, stomachaches, backaches or sports related injuries, you may want to consider having your child participate in a group Somatics classes. If you are a coach, you may want to consider having a Hanna Somatic Educator teach your team a series of Somatic Exercises that can be done to relax, lengthen and restore tight muscles in order for your athletes to move with an agility they never knew they had.