I’ve gone to an acupuncturist, pain medicine doctor, sports medicine doctor, massage therapist, physical therapist – and they all told me, “you’ll never get rid of this. It will never go away.”
This is what my client, Joanne (not her real name) told me before her first clinical Somatics session. She had a herniated disc, severe back pain and sacroiliac joint pain. She had a feeling that “life’s impacts,” as she called them, had had more of an effect on her than anything else. I agreed with her. I explained some basics about muscles and bones in order to de-mystify what up until then had been an elusive problem:
- Muscles attach to bones and muscles move bones.
- Your brain and nervous system senses and moves your muscles.
- Your brain responds and adapts to stress in your environment by tightening muscles in specific, full body patterns.
- If these stress responses are on-going or severe enough (ie. an accident), your brain/muscles habituate involuntarily as if the stress were still occurring, even as if has stopped. This is a neurological event in your brain.
- Your muscles learn to become really good at contracting and holding your body tightly, so they must learn to relax and release. Only you can re-train your muscles to release and relax. It is a process of remembering how to sense and move your own body more accurately.
Discs and bones only move when muscles move them and muscle dysfunction affects structural integrity.
Why is this important to understand? Because muscles and bones have no mind of their own. They only respond to electrical signals from the brain. Yes, an X-ray can show a protrusion in your spine – but the question medicine fails to ask is, “what happened – or is continuing to happen – in the muscles, that is putting excess pressure on the spine and discs?
Herniated discs, one of the most common muscle pain conditions I see in my clinical practice, are the structural result of poor muscle function. They are yet another example of Sensory Motor Amnesia. More specifically, herniated discs are the result of habituation to two stress reflexes:
Trauma Reflex : the brain’s response to an accident, injury, surgery or long term compensation due to all of the above. The muscles of the waist and trunk rotators contract more on one side in order to avoid further pain. There is always a slight side bending or twist apparent in people with a trauma reflex. The waist muscles (the internal and external obliques, plus the quadratus lumborum, which “hikes” the pelvis up on one side) cause an uneven pull on the lumbar spine (or on the cervical spine in the case of a cervical herniation). This, in affect, herniates the disc.
Green Light Reflex: this reflex contracts all the muscles of the back of the body, from sacrum to occiput, is a “call to action” response, invoked hundreds of times a day in our rushed, industrialized society. It is the cause of most chronic back pain. The muscles of the back are like steel rods, yet feel weak and fatigued.
Over the course of five clinical sessions Joanne learned to regain awareness and control over the muscles of her waist, back and pelvis, all of which had become rigid and contracted over the years. She learned to pandiculate (rather than stretch) her muscles, restoring full muscle function and length to her weary muscles. When she learned to release her back muscles her shooting pain began to disappear. Once her waist and trunk rotators began to soften she enjoyed moving her hips and pelvis without fear of pain when she walked. “My husband won’t know what’s walking in the door!” she laughed after one session.
Here are three of the most important exercises that Joanne did to help her relax her back and waist muscles – Arch and Flatten, to release tight back muscles and the Side Bend and the Washrag.
Joanne now understood that her internal process of “forgetting” how to move her muscles, which contributed to her pain, had developed over time due to stress. Now the internal process of remembering how to move and maintaining mastery and freedom of movement with Somatic Exercises and renewed awareness was her’s to continue to do for the rest of her life. Her doctors had been wrong and she knew it all along.