I’ve had back pain since 1997. I tweaked it during an ergometer (rowing machine) workout back in my rowing days and it went into spasm… the day before we headed to Georgia for a rowing camp.
On the long car ride to Georgia, it was unmanageable to sit for that long. Luckily one of the ladies going to the camp was a physiotherapist, and helped ease my pain during rest stops. Once we arrived, she was able to help get rid of the spasms.
But since then it's just never been the same. I would go to the physiotherapist, chiropractor and massage therapist regularly to keep it in check, but it always came back. Always.
Eventually, about 3 years ago, I got rid of my back pain for good (more on that later).
Chronic pain or stiffness
Can you relate to any of these?
- You have certain recurring issues that don’t go away (back pain, tight hips, stuck shoulder, knee twinge, tendinitis … I could go on)
- You’re always trying to stretch things out – that’s the solution, right? Yes, it feels good… but lo and behold the tightness always returns!
- You’ve seen physiotherapists, chiropractors and massage therapists which temporarily ease your symptoms, but the problem just doesn’t go away. And there’s a need to continue booking those appointments
- You’ve been told “well, you’re getting old” as if these problems are to be expected with age
- You think “it sucks getting old” because you can’t do the things you used to do
- You’re fed-up with feeling achy, tight, and limited in your movements, no matter what your age
If you answered yes to any of those, then keep on reading to find out WHY the pain doesn't go away despite your best efforts.
But first I have a riddle for you.
In Greek mythology, the Sphinx demanded all travellers answer its riddle before they could pass. “What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three in the evening?”
The answer is… a human being – who crawls on all fours as a baby, then walks on two feet as an adult, then uses a cane in old age.
This answers the riddle, but doesn’t answer this: why is it that humans, having learned to walk upright, possibly lose this ability and often walk with a cane?
Although there’s no denying that as we get older, we usually get stiffer, WHY does this happen?
How can modern medicine - which protects us from infections and disorders, and extends our life expectancy to 82 years - fail to protect us from simple body stiffness, aches and pains?
How your body responds to stress
Dr. Hans Selye, a pioneering endocrinologist, and one of the prime figures in 20th century medical research, formulated the general adaptation syndrome (GAS). This is a three-stage process that describes the physiological changes the body goes through (adapts to) when under stress. They are: alarm reaction, resistance, and exhaustion.
The body releases chemicals during each stage. If the body doesn't get a chance to repair and recover after one stage, then it moves into the next stage. In the last stage, burnout and anxiety can occur. This weakens your immune system and makes you susceptible to illness.
During our lifetime, we all go through a type of evolution: we adapt to the stresses and strains of everyday existence.
How you respond and adapt to these ongoing demands will determine how you age.
Yes, you need regular exercise to cope with stress, as well as other techniques such as meditation, deep-breathing exercises and, of course, yoga! But there's a missing piece: in addition to physiological changes, there's also increased muscular tension that you experience with stress.
Muscular response to stress
Your neuromuscular system has two basic responses to stress. The stress can be negative (distress) or positive (eustress).
Negative stress will trigger the withdrawal reflex, which is increased muscular tension in the front of the body. This occurs as a result fear, apprehension or anxiety. Shoulders elevate and round forward, back rounds, knees come together. This is a protective reflex to survive: the rounding posture protects organs. This becomes a problem if negative stress is continuous, and the withdrawal posture becomes habitual, over time (unbeknownst to you). See figure 1 below.
Positive stress triggers the action response, which is increased muscular tension in the back of the body. This occurs when there’s a need to act: to catch a train, to skate and shoot a puck, to get that report done. Back muscles contract (to make you move), and glutes and legs come alive. This becomes a problem if positive stress is continuous, the body is always "on" and that "alert" posture becomes habitual. Over time, this shows up as tight low back, shoulders tightly drawn back, locked knees. See figure 2 below. It's no surprise that pain can come as a result of these constantly contracted muscles.
Do you recognize yourself in either of those postures? If this is how your body adapts to stress over the long term, how can you change that?
While traditional medicine emphasizes the external viewpoint of what can be done to a person’s body to improve health, Selye expanded this to include a person’s internal ability of self-control.
That is, he introduced the internal viewpoint - the somatic viewpoint - of what can be done by a person's body to improve health. From the inside you're not aware of the body itself, but rather of the feelings and sensations of that body. When you're nervous, for example, you feel your heart beating and your palms sweating. This is a first person experience - a somatic experience.
To reduce the effects of muscular stress, YOU have the ability to do something, the ability to control and change those muscles, from the inside.
Dr. Thomas Hanna was a philosopher who developed Clinical Somatic Education - a method of neuromuscular retraining that uses the sensory-motor nervous system to alleviate chronic pain and improve mobility. His experience in studying divinity, philosophy, and neurosciences led him to the idea that all life experiences lead to physical patterns in the body.
Back in balance
I discovered Clinical Somatic Education (Somatics, for short) about 3 years ago. It's called "education" because it's a learning process. Essentially, you have to re-learn how to move, because your body has maladapted to stress and/or you've developed habits of compensation without realizing it.
Practicing Somatics, I was able to use my sensory-motor nervous system to lengthen my chronically tight muscles. Finally, my body was back in balance and all its parts were working in coordination with each other.
This was not a quick fix, and required me to pay attention to compensations I was making. But with practice, I finally got rid of my back pain for good. And - even better - any time I have tension, tightness or pain, I have the tools to help myself and nip it in the bud. It's all about awareness. Very empowering!
Here's a sampling of what I teach in the group classes: