Pain-Free At Work – New Essential Somatics DVD To Relieve Workplace Pain

An estimated 186 million work days are lost each year to back pain alone.

Workplace pain is muscle pain that can develop due to the on-going or repetitive demands of your job. You don’t have to sit at a desk, however, to experience “workplace pain.” Teachers, nurses, construction workers, data processors, salesmen and women, lawyers, doctors can all develop chronic muscle pain.

Sitting for long hours at your job can have an adverse affect on one’s health. Office-Somatics-DVD

Stress has another downside: it puts your nervous system into a “fight or flight” mode. Somatic Exerices and frequent breaks to stand, move the arms, walk up and down the hall or simply stand up and “reach to the top shelf” allow the nervous system to relax.

A more relaxed nervous system has been shown to contribute to increased mental focus and creativity. It also directly contributes to improved self-awareness and optimum muscle function. This alone can save you countless visits to the chiropractor, doctor and physical therapist.

Available Now: Essential Somatics’ Pain-Free At Work DVD

One this DVD you will learn seven easy, short Somatic Exercises you can do at your desk in order to remind your muscles that they don’t have to stay tight and frozen in one position all day long.  Consider downloading this DVD to your desktop so you can remind yourself daily how to release and relax you neck, shoulder, back and waist muscles so that they function more efficiently throughout the day.

Click here for a complete selection of the Essential Somatics Somatic Exercise DVDs.

Is Your Technology A Pain in the Neck?

Recently I read this article about one woman’s saga of neck pain. Her struggle to come to reconcile the fact that her iPad is causing her recurring neck pain is emblematic of an all cradletoo common and painful functional adaptation to our increasingly technological world.

Every day I work with people whose jobs require them to sit for up to 12 hours hunched over a computer. Most of them tell me that the task of looking at a computer screen while trying to “sit up straight,” view the screen clearly and not hunch over is taking a toll on their bodies. Their doctors tell them that they have degenerative disks. Yet they worry more that they’re getting “old” before their time.

I teach them that their muscle pain is most likely not structural in nature; it is likely a functional problem of habituation that requires re-educating of the muscles to relax and release. The muscles have become very good at staying tight in order to be able to sit for hours at a time at their desk. They’ve simply developed an unfortunate muscular habit, which requires “un-learning” in order to regain the ability to self-correct their posture and move easy without pain. The first step in the process, however, is awareness.

The “posture of senility” is the posture of the computer generation.

Tilting the head slightly forward and down is the default posture for many – secretaries, teachers grading papers, college students reading and writing for long hours, computer programmers, journalists, and editors.

What’s important to be aware of is that while neck pain is an increasingly common complaint associated with personal technology use, the brain also co-contracts other muscles to teach the entire body to hold itself in a pattern of slumping: the shoulders hunch up, our shoulder blades become fixed in place, the abdominals tighten, our breathing becomes shallow, and the chest collapses inward. This is the “startle response” (or “red light reflex“) often associated with aging and considered the “senile posture.” This reflex is not only a reflex in response to fear or the need to protect, but is has become a muscle function adaptation to technological gadgets. boy with computer

A picture is worth a thousand words and the photo at right says it all. This, unfortunately, has become the “new normal” for many. Even small children are becoming experts at slumping.

Stop right now – and notice whether or not you look like this little Indian boy, mesmerized by the computer screen in front of him? Is the back of your neck tight? Is your stomach tight? When was the last time you took a deep breath? How do the tops of your shoulders feel? If you straighten your neck to a comfortable, neutral position can you see your computer screen?

Somatic Exercises can help reverse neck pain.

Migraines, eye strain, shallow breathing, thoracic outlet syndrome, TMJ and mid/upper back pain are conditions that can develop as a result of this hunched and contracted posture. These conditions are also examples of Sensory Motor Amnesia, the condition of chronically tight muscles that have learned to stay contracted due to stress and repetitive movement. I have unconsciously created thoracic outlet syndrome in my own body from being intensely immersed in editing, and using the computer mouse in a less than relaxed manner. I reversed it using Somatic Exercises and pandiculation.

If you’re experiencing neck, back, and shoulder pain, here are a few suggestions to help you back from the edge of computer-itis related muscle pain:

And remember – movement is medicine. The brain only teaches the muscles to adapt to one’s environment. Today’s western industrialized society is more and more sedentary and people take fewer and fewer breaks to stand up, shake their hips, roll their shoulders, stretch out their arms or jump up and down.

Remind your muscles that they don’t have to stay tight and frozen; get up and move! Circle your arms, do the Twist, jump up and down, take some long, deep breaths and slowly roll your shoulders. Or lie down on your side and roll the top shoulder up, down, forward, back and in circles. Remind it that it doesn’t have to stay frozen in one place. 

Click here to purchase my easy to understand instructional DVDs.

Somatic Exercises to Combat “Computer-itis” Neck, Shoulder and Hip Pain

It’s always a full body pattern of muscle tension that causes functional muscle pain.

The muscular system and body operates as a whole, not a series of parts. When we move it’s never just one muscle that lifts our arm, brings our leg forward or bends our back; there’s a perfect coordination between agonist and antagonist muscles. If one muscle group contracts, its antagonist lengthens to allow the movement to happen. This is how we move through gravity efficiently and, we hope, with the least possible effort or pain. The brain controls us as a synergistic, constantly recalibrating system, similar to the underlying software of a computer. Update the software and the computer runs more smoothly. So it is with the body.

If, due to overuse, repetitive action or injury and accidents, we change the way that we move,  we can develop the condition of sensory motor amnesia (tight, “frozen” muscles that the brain has forgotten how to release). This means that your brain invariably contracts not just the muscles needed to complete the action, but also other groups of muscles that compensate to help us move. This “dance” between muscles stops working and both agonist and antagonist muscles become tightly contracted, it’s as if we are stuck in a vise.

In my last post I wrote about hip pain and how the posture of leaning and slumping into one’s dominant side to reach for and use the computer mouse, can create hip pain. It can also create shoulder and neck pain as one hunches, draws the shoulder forward, collapses through the ribcage and waist and concentrates on the work (and computer screen) at hand.

Try these corrective Somatic Exercises for relief of shoulder and hip pain from “computer-itis”

Here’s a simple protocol for releasing, relaxing and re-training the muscles that become painfully tight from excessive computer work. This is useful for people like me (I’m not a big fan of computers, so I tend to bring a certain level of tension to my computer work), graphic artists, graphics, film or music editors, data input workers and those whose work is simply repetitive.

Arch and flatten

Side bend

Side Bend breathing exercise – here’s a new video for you. This exercise is a full body pandiculation of exactly the muscles that “collapse” and tighten when you slump, jut your head forward to look at your computer screen and reach for your mouse:

Washrag – to open up the front of the body and connect it to the shoulders and hips.

Other wonderful Somatic Exercises that can help to battle “computer-itis” are the steeple twist, flower, neck and neck variations (from Pain-Free Neck and Shoulders).

Martha will come to your office to present an introductory Essential Somatics Move Without Pain workshop, do one-on-one consultations and clinical sessions. Essential Somatics for pain relief saves healthcare dollars and prevents worker injuries from repetitive muscle strain and overuse. For more information email Martha.

Computer Work – Is It Causing Your Shoulder and Hip Pain?

Overuse on one side of the body can create muscular imbalance and pain.

The most common muscle pain complaint people contact me about is hip pain. Specifically right sided hip pain often accompanied by tightness in the ribs and waist on the same side.  There is invariably accompanying same side shoulder pain, usually on the top of the shoulder and into the neck. To top it off, 100% of those people sit at a computer almost all day. 

Many of these people have also experienced an accident or injury that has caused them to “cringe” and contract in a “trauma reflex.”  As many readers already know, the trauma reflex involuntarily contracts one side of the waist and trunk rotators, which results in a slight side bending and twisting of the waist muscles on one side of the body. This occurs due to the need to compensate for an injury or to avoid pain on one side of the body.

Take a moment and visualize sitting at your computer. Do you lean into your screen to see? Reach for your mouse by rounding the shoulder forward and collapsing slightly in your ribcage? If yes, then you can begin to understand where some of this hip pain might be coming from.

Look in the mirror. Does your posture like either of these photos?:

There’s a definite pattern to overuse on the computer, and the photos above show how specific it is. Look at the photo on the left and notice how the shoulder on the right side sits lower than the left shoulder. Look at the wrinkles in the woman’s shirt right under her armpit and shoulder blade. Those wrinkles are caused by tight muscles of the shoulder and waist pulling the shoulder down.

Look at the photo on the right. Notice the same effect, only this time from the front. The shoulder on the left side (the client’s right side) is pulling noticeably downward, causing the ribs to contract. Again, the telltale wrinkles in the shirt just under the armpit let you know that there are muscles tightening unconsciously all the time, while my client is standing “at ease.”

If you are collapsed and contracted in the center of the body, the muscles of the hip joint will also be tight.

Some studies say that between 70-90% of people are right handed, which means that most people working on computers are also “mousing” with their right arm – reaching, focusing muscularly with the right shoulder/arm/fingers, slumping slightly into one hip as they work with their mouse.

How does collapsing/slumping on one side of the body create hip pain?

The graphic on the right will help you understand: this shows the external oblique muscles (I call both sets of obliques the “waist muscles” to simplify things) that connect your ribs to your pelvis. The internal oblique muscles attach down into iliac crest of the pelvis. Both muscles help to twist the body and flex it laterally. They act like an accordion to bend the body to the side and like a “twist tie” to enable the torso to turn. They are instrumental in moving the hips up and down and stablizing the torso side to side.

If you habitually contract this muscle group, both the origin and the insertion of the muscles (the places where they connect on the skeleton) will become tight…all the way up into the ribs and down into the hip. The muscles will become “amnesic” at the level of the brain and nervous system (sensory motor amnesia, the root of most chronic muscle pain) and pain will develop. Learn to improve your awareness of your posture (and tendency to slouch to one side while at the computer), and methodically release the muscles to their original length and your pain will begin to diminish. It’s as simple as that.

If you are one of those people who works at a computer and experiences hip pain and/or same sided low back pain, there is hope. In my next post I will remind you of a few simple Somatic Exercises that will help you reverse this problem.

Click here  to purchase my Pain Relief Through Movement DVD or Pain-Free Legs and Hips DVD and learn to reverse your pain on your own. Or contact Martha for an online Skype session or one on one clinical session.

How Stress Affects Necks, Shoulders and Breathing

The holidays are over, the New Year has begun, and my clients are complaining of neck and shoulder pain.  Most of them work 10 hours a day at the computer, commute, care for their families and get in a workout whenever possible. And most of them don’t realize that they don’t know how to breathe fully enough to positively reduce their stress. Every one of these clients has elements of what we call the “red light reflex” in their posture: rounded and slumped shoulders, a neck that juts out slightly, tight abdominals

I started writing this blog during the holidays, so I’ll give you exactly what I’d written:

At holiday time with all the commitments and obligations people have to family, work and their yearly traditions, there is a tendency to get stuck in this “red light,” stress reflex, even when there is no life-threatening emergency or threat to one’s own survival. For many people just the idea of how much needs to get done as they race through the mall (or click away on the Internet, slumped in their chair, to order their gifts), buy gifts, put up Christmas trees, decorate the house, host family members, or attend parties, is enough to cause them to stop breathing, hunch their shoulders and stiffen their necks – as if danger is right around the corner. Repeat this all day long, and the end result is neck and shoulder pain, or sheer fatigue from shallow breathing and lack of oxygenation to one’s brain.

Hans Selye, the endocrinologist who created the General Adaptation Syndrome, is considered “the father of stress research.”  He was known to have stated that all disease is disease of adaptation – meaning that humans adapt to stress, which alters metabolism and other physiological states in our bodies – and that we have a limited amount of adaptive energy to deal with stress. If ignored a continuously stressed body, constantly in a “fight or flight” stage of high alert, will lose its defenses against illness. This is a very basic overview (and I will write more about it in another blog post about how stress affects joints and mobility).

“Hunched” posture is a response to stress.

The fight or flight state of stress is a primal survival instinct that kicks in when there is real or perceived danger. In Hanna Somatics the physical posture is the “red light reflex” (or startle reflex) of protection and withdrawal:  hunched and rounded shoulders, a neck that juts forward, and tight abdominals that suppress breathing. This posture occurs due to fear, anxiety, danger and on-going emotional stress.

We’re no longer being chased by meat eating predators, but too many of us experience the stress of our lives to be equally as dangerous as that kind of scenario. The real danger nowadays occurs when we habitually respond to non-life threatening events as if they were truly life-threatening.  When the “red light” reflex of stress becomes “the norm” in our bodies, here’s what can happen:

  • we suppress our breathing
  • our brain doesn’t get the oxygen it needs
  • our hearts don’t get the oxygen it needs
  • suppressed breathing negatively affects our mood and our creativity (which adversely affects our working environment)
  • we contract the muscles of the front of our bodies, which rounds us forward
  • we lose our equilibrium, causing other muscles to work harder than they should to keep us in balance.

Try this exercise to reduce your stress:

Here’s a wonderful exercise, called “The Flower.”

To buy my book, Move Without Pain, and my pain-relief DVDs, click here.

Are Athletes Smarter Than the Rest of Us?

In my Somatic Education training we had to write a paper on why the study of neurophysiology was important to the practice of Hanna Somatic (Clinical Somatic) Education.
The unique methods used in private clinical sessions of Somatics are based in neurophysiology: the brain controls the  muscles, and movement gives feedback to the brain, making the brain more efficient at coordinating muscles and movement and improving posture. Muscle dysfunction can only be changed through movement.

In an Exuberant Animal workshop I took a while ago, Frank Forenich gave a talk about the positive brain changes that occur through daily vigorous movement. He brought up the stereotype of the “dumb jock,” and wrong that was. Studies are showing, however, that they just might have smarter brains than most of us!

Practice is main reason that athletes’ brains – and by extension their movement – function better. Athletes are constantly predicting the next move and honing their brain’s ability to respond to whatever is happening.  In the article linked above, they cite a brain study of people learning to juggle. After a week of practice, the jugglers were already developing extra gray matter in some brain areas. These brain changes continued for months, the scientists found. As soon as someone starts to practice a new sport – and I would add a new movement, in general -  the brain begins to change, and the changes continue for years.

Not everyone has the time, nor the desire to become an athlete. However, the brain benefits of adding new and challenging new ways of moving are available to all, athlete, scientist, carpenter or web designer. Somatic Movement is an excellent way to challenge our brains, change our bodies, reduce our pain and keep ourselves smarter as we age.

The first step is awareness. Somatic Movement is meant to increase the brain’s awareness of how it feels to be in your own body in space. The word for that is proprioception. Needing heightened and honed proprioceptive skills isn’t just the domain of an elite athlete. Proprioceptive skills, sorely lacking today in many sedentary young people, is crucial to one’s survival.  A lack of proprioception can cause chronic back, neck, shoulder, hip, knee and foot pain. It can cause people to lose their balance and limit their movement, causing accidents.

In young people a lack of proprioception, I dare say, can lead to decreased self-esteem, more attention deficit, and a lack of problem solving skills. If learning a new skill increases brain matter, does this have anything to do with the learning issues of today’s children? This is why vigorous movement (no matter what it is) is so important for young people.

Proprioception can be improved through Somatic Movement – so you can use your brain to become better at whatever it is you love to do. I’m convinced that you can become as smart as an athlete, as long as you challenge yourself with movement.

Chronic pain and injuries can get in the way of a movement filled life. Diligent, patience and persistent practice of basic movement patterns that flex, extend, side bend, twist and rotate your body as a whole will engage your brain to stay in control of your movement, ready for whatever comes your way. Somatic Movement can be done while lying down (as in the movements on my DVD) or while seated. Once you feel you’ve released your tight muscles, and regained aware and control of your movement, move on to an activity that is challenging for your brain and body.

It doesn’t need to be a triathalon, gymnastics or spinning class. Ballroom dancing, yoga, hiking, swimming and exuberant play-based fitness will challenge your brain to change your body and movement, and keep you healthy for longer than you thought possible.

Contact Martha for more information on how to move pain-free. She is available for private sessions, workshops and speeches. New Fall teaching schedule coming up soon on the website!

Standing Up is Better For Your Health

I’ve covered the subject of sitting in several previous blog posts - one of which has a link to some great Somatic Movements you can do while seated at your desk. Sitting and the damage done to most of us through hours of sitting at desks, computers and in cars, is a healthcare problem.

It’s tough on the hip joints, lousy on posture and breathing and contributes to back, hip, knee, neck and shoulder pain. Many people don’t even realize that they’re probably not breathing correctly, or as fully as you could in order to be healthy. But that’s for another day…

I saw a video clip of an interview between Donald Rumsfeld and Piers Morgan in which Morgan expresses his chagrin at how “odd” it is that Rumsfeld doesn’t sit at his desk – but stands instead. Rumsfeld responds,

“why do you act like that’s odd? Sitting is weird!”

Bravo. Now I’m not sure whether Morgan was putting on an act or not, but he added to his “this proves that Donald Rumsfeld is definitely “weird” list, Rumsfeld’s daily ritual of exercise:

“At 78 years old?! Why do you still work out?”

Rumsfeld’s attitude is excellent: sit infrequently and move as much as you can. Now, putting politics aside, I have to say that with his attitude about health, Rumsfeld should probably have gone into the health profession. Age has nothing to do with whether or not one should stop moving.

In developing countries like India and Africa, not moving isn’t an option. Adults move because work needs to get done, not because they want a work out, as does Rumsfeld. And, chances are many of these people are stronger and more physically resilient than your average American.

Sitting in  a chair at right angles for long periods of time can create tight hip joints, rigid back muscles and neck and shoulder spasms. When we sit at work, rarely are we relaxed. I know I’m not.  I tend to stand at my kitchen counter when I do online Skype sessions with clients.

If you’re a “green light” person, you’ll pitch yourself forward and over-arch the lower back when seated, which will cause the hip flexors to contract. They will learn to stay tight until given the signal to relax. When you get up you’ll find yourself getting up from your chair slowly, because the front of your hips will feel tight.

If you tend to slouched while seated (more “red light“), you will tighten the abdominals and breathe shallowly. This rounded posture, which rounds the pelvis under, and causes the neck to jut forward, is a sure-fire recipe for back and neck pain.

The downsides of sitting:

  • decreased circulation
  • decreased creativity due to lack of movement
  • tighter hips, due to habituation to sitting with an over-arched lower back or slumping
  • shallower breathing

The benefits of standing while working:

  • increased ability to move the entire body as much as you want
  • increased ability to imbed learning and memory (movement causes the brain to release BDNF)
  • improved posture and proprioception (body awareness)
  • improved breathing due
  • increased circulation
  • improved muscle tone due

Try it out if your workplace is amenable to such an experiment. Notice your own patterns of posture and movement. Relax your belly when you breath and notice how much better that feels. Make sure your weight is evenly distributed and that you can easily shift your weight from side to side.

Some of the basic Somatic Exercises can even be done standing (arch and curl, reach to the top shelf, the arms from the “washrag”). Or you can create your own – if you do, please share them with me so I can share them with my readers.