How a Clinical Somatic Approach Can Help Scoliosis

In my last blog post I wrote that although there might be a genetic link to scoliosis (for some people), the important factor in “idiopathic” scoliosis is “the environment.” The environment here doesn’t refer to trees and water; it refers to what kind of stressors occur in your life to cause you to develop scoliosis.

Let’s go back to the basics for a second:

  1. Your brain controls your muscles.
  2. Your muscles attach to your bones.
  3. Your muscles move bones. Bones never move where muscles don’t pull them (except in the case of a disease process, like polio).
  4. Your brain responds to stress in the environment by tightening muscle groups in specific patterns (red light, green light, trauma reflex).

Accidents and injuries at a young age can set scoliosis in motion.

I have worked with many clients who have had scoliosis “in the family.” I’ve worked with even more scoliosis clients who are the only ones in their family to have ever developed this condition. They all share one thing in common: a traumatic accident/slip/fall before or during adolescence. Many women who have developed mild scoliosis later in life have suffered a traumatic fall or accident, or spent decades raising multiple children and making a “perch” for their child by hiking up one side of their pelvis.

When you have an accident, your brain instantly contracts the muscles of the waist and trunk rotators in order to help you avoid further pain or injury. This “trauma reflex,” when habituated, can create an adaptive muscular pattern of consistent with scoliosis. The curve can be mild or severe. Many teenagers undergo  surgery to put Harrington rods in their spines, while others decide to use exercise and stretching techniques instead.

Hanna Somatic Education (HSE) is a safe, easy method for addressing scoliosis and relieving the back pain associated with this condition. HSE uses the technique of assisted (or “hands-on”) pandiculation to teach clients to release muscles that are stuck in the feedback loop of Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA). It is a recalibration of the voluntary sensory and motor centers of the brain. Remember that with SMA the brain forgets how to sense, feel and move muscles. Pandiculation heightens the client’s internal awareness of those muscles and teaches them to release.  Sensory motor function is restored, and structural imbalances slowly begin to reverse themselves.

In a clinical session of Hanna Somatics, assisted pandiculation helps to release the muscle groups involved in that person’s particular pattern of scoliosis.

At right are two photos of “Rita,” (not her real name), a woman with scoliosis with whom I recently did a first clinical session. The photo on the near right is “before” her lesson/session; the one at the far right is “after” her lesson/session.

Notice the “before” photo: Rita’s weight is pitched way over to the right. Her right waist is compressed, and if you look closely, you can even see the outline of her scoliotic curve on the right and contracted gluteal muscles on the left. She is literally being “pulled down” and twisted to the right.

Notice the “after” photo: Rita’s scoliotic curve is not as distinct. She is lifted up slightly out of her right side and her weight is shifted a bit more toward center. When I showed Rita these photos she exclaimed, “I actually have a waist!” She felt taller and lighter when she walked. What exactly did we do to affect this kind of change?

We pandiculated the muscles of the trauma reflex, then pandiculated the muscles of the right shoulder. I taught her the “back lift,” an exercise that brings the brain back into control of the back muscles. She also learned three more exercises for the waist muscles.

While it is clear that Rita and I have a lot more work to do to get her to “untwist” her ribcage, even out her pelvis and improve her symmetry, she made excellent improvement in one session. Daily practice of the Somatic Exercises to reinforce her progress, and about 5-6 more clinical sessions and she will be moving with less pain and more freedom. The kind of change she was able to affect is a small example of how effective assisted pandiculation and the techniques of Hanna Somatics can help those with scoliosis help themselves. The younger the client, the more rapid the progress. 

Scoliosis – The Ultimate Trauma Reflex

Is scoliosis really genetic?

In one of my recent London Essential Somatics workshops a student told me about a friend with scoliosis. “The poor girl has been dealing with back problems for a long time. The doctor told her that her scoliosis was genetic and there’s nothing he can do for her,” he said.

I’ve only found one article – click here to read it – that states that there is a possible genetic link to what is now called “idiopathic” scoliosis. Idiopathic means “no known cause.” I’ve worked with many people with scoliosis and have long wondered if there’s a genetic propensity in families toward scoliosis. The article states:

Although scientists have known for years that scoliosis runs in families, its pattern of inheritance has remained unclear. That’s because the condition is likely caused by several different genes that work in concert with one another — and the environment — to cause scoliosis.

The key words for me here are “and the environment.” Why? Because, from a Somatic Education perspective, the way we reflexively react and adapt to stress is what can determine whether or not one develops scoliosis.

“Did your friend every suffered an accident when she was younger, I asked.” “Oh yes! She fell down an entire flight of concrete stairs and landed on her coccyx. She’s never been the same since,” he said.

The trauma reflex saves you from further pain or injury.

Thomas Hanna theorized that scoliosis developed due to an habituation to what he termed the trauma reflex. This reflex occurs instantly in response to a sudden accident or injury (think slipping on a patch of ice, as in the photo at right) and the need to avoid pain or injury. It can also develop gradually (think limping or using crutches or a boot as you rehabilitate from a sprained or broken ankle) as you compensate until your injury is fully healed.

The trauma reflex involves all the trunk rotators of the core (latissumus dorsii, obliques, abdominals, abductors, adductors) – muscles that twist, rotate and side bend in order to retract from the site of the injury or accident. It is a useful and completely involuntary reflex that, once conditioned and habituated, teaches the waist muscles that attach into  the pelvis to stay tighter on one side than the other. The pelvis will twist, and the hips will become slightly tilted and out of balance. What develops in response to this imbalance is a compensatory tightening in the shoulders and ribcage. A fall such as my student’s friend suffered is indeed a serious accident – and a perfect example of the kind of trauma that could lead to scoliosis.

Somatic Exercises can begin releasing the tight muscles that contribute to scoliosis.

I have worked with many clients who have scoliosis “in the family” and even more who are the only ones in their family ever to suffer from this condition. Ever one of them shares one thing in common: a traumatic accident/slip/fall before or during adolescence.

While scoliosis is complicated to address, and best addressed through clinical hands-on sessions, there are specific Somatic Exercises that can begin to release the muscles that are the most complicit in the pattern of scoliosis. They are:

  1. back lift
  2. cross lateral arch and curl
  3. side bend
  4. washrag
  5. steeple twist
  6. walking exercises – part 1 & 2
  7. shoulder and hip circles (from Pain-Free Legs and Hips)

The first 6 exercises in the above list are from my Pain Relief Through Movement “basics” DVD.

Here’s a tip for more efficient learning:

When doing the “steeple twist exercise,” the focus is on lengthening the waist muscles, releasing the sides of the waist, expanding the ribcage, and allowing the pelvis to rock – not over-arching. In doing the “steeple hands” part of the exercise, the focus is on gently expanding and twisting the ribcage and shoulders as you lengthen from deep in the latissimus muscles. If you don’t know this exercise and you have scoliosis, it’s time to purchase my “basics” DVD and begin learning!

More on scoliosis in my next post…

If you’d like to bring Martha to your area, contact her directly to see how easily it can be done. She teaches specialty workshops, conducts private clinical sessions and presents to trainers, and medical professionals wishing to learn more about how Hanna Somatic Education can help their clients and patients to get long term pain relief safely, sensibly and easily.

How To Save Money, Time and Agony When It Come To Muscular Pain

It is an understatement to say that most people in the industrialized world live a stressful life. One article states, “Low-back pain continues to impose a huge burden on industrialized societies, in terms of symptoms, medical costs, productivity, and work absence. Annual costs related to back pain in the United States alone may run as high as $100 billion per year.”

By the time most people come to see me they’ve spent a minimum of $1000 in their attempt to cure their pain. Medical co-pays, personal trainers, months of physical therapy, special exercise equipment, pillows and gadgets can add up.  There are myriad treatments that attempt to “fix” back pain, and many clients who come for Hanna Somatics have already spent weeks and often years doing them in their search for relief from muscle pain and tension: massage therapy, therapeutic ultrasound, physical therapy, laser therapy, acupuncture, MRIs, Xrays, medication, and a host of others.

Why don’t these therapies work to relieve muscle pain for the long term? Because the doctors and therapists who perform them approach approach the problem as a medical pathology. Muscle pain and dysfunction isn’t a medical problem – it’s a functional problem. There is no doubt that poor muscle function can cause structural damage over the long term.  An uneven gait or limp can cause hip damage. It’s preventing that problem in the first place that is of paramount importance.

The only effective approach to sciatica, piriformis syndrome, low back pain, poor posture, scoliosis, shoulder and hip pain, herniated disks, decreased flexibility, and joint pain is, in most cases, to IMPROVE THE FUNCTION OF THE SENSORY MOTOR SYSTEM so that the entire musculoskeletal system functions optimally. This is a functional approach to a functional problem that the medical profession considers a medical problem. Therein lies the disconnect: most doctors don’t know how to effectively address muscle and joint pain and postural problems.

Muscles move bones and the brain controls the muscles. If muscles are pressing on bones and nerves, causing tingling and pain (“entrapment”), there is a reason for it: there is something that you, the person in pain, is doing to cause the muscles to contract. Any reflexive response to stress, whether it be contracting the back muscles, twisting to the side to avoid an injury (or carry a toddler on the hip for hours at a time) or slumping forward over a computer terminal, will become habituated in the muscles. That means your muscles will become “frozen” and “stuck.” Tight muscles cause pain. Relaxed muscles relieve pain and allow our bones and structure to become balanced again. No doctor or therapy can fix your crooked posture, tight buttock or rounded shoulders. Only you can.

Check out classes at Essential Somatics to begin to learn how to reverse chronic pain and dysfunction for good!

Relieving the Pain of Scoliosis and Pregnancy

Anne called me, having heard that I teach people to rid themselves of chronic pain.

“No one will touch me, and I’m wondering if you can help me.” She explained that she was seven months pregnant with her second child, had scoliosis and was suffering from severe pain in her left hip, groin and ribs. When I asked her why no one would work with her, she said that everyone said they didn’t know what was wrong, and it might be dangerous. Instinctively she knew that tight muscles were causing pain. She was correct.

One look at Anne told me that years of compensating due to accidents was at the root of her muscular pain. This proved to be correct. I knew that if I could teach her to feel her waist muscles  again and begin to move her hips, she’d feel much better.  Anne’s left side was much tighter than her right side, (as in the photo on the right) and her left hip was drawn upward. Her right ribs twisted back and downward, and her weight was pitched more onto her right foot.  She showed a typical “trauma reflex” - a reflexive muscular holding pattern that occurs in response to an accident or injury. This is also the pattern of holding that creates scoliosis: a trauma at an early age (she’d been in a leg cast for months at age 9) can cause you to have to compensate until the injury heals. This leaves the waist muscles tighter on one side than the other and causes the ribcage to twist in compensation.  The muscles, which attach to the spine, then pull the spine out of alignment during the growth spurt that occurs during adolescence.

After three  sessions of learning to relax the muscles on the left side of her body – the waist, shoulder and rib muscles – including the muscles of her legs –  she stood up, able to breathe deeply for the first time in months. Under her shirt, her back looked similar to the photo on the right. The hips were hiked up and the ribcage twisted.

The nagging pain in her groin was greatly diminished. Methodically contracting, releasing and relaxing muscles to make them longer than before was easy. Anne and I worked together over the course of two months, re-programming her movement and muscle control.  She wanted to make sure that when the new baby arrived she could deal with lifting, holding, and nursing.

Anne is doing really well; her baby is now two years old, the pain she arrived in my office with is gone. She continues to do her Somatic Exercises whenever she gets a chance.