Relax Your Obliques, Lengthen Your Spine

What do one-sided hip, knee and foot pain, pelvic rotation, sciatica, piriformis syndrome, leg length discrepancy, and “tilted” posture all have in common?

Answer: the Trauma Reflex.

When you respond to any physical trauma, sudden blow to the body, slip and fall or accident of any kind, the brain instantly, and often violently, contracts the muscles of the waist (called the oblique muscles) and the trunk rotators (lattisimus dorsii, abdominals, adductors and abductors of the legs) in an attempt to avoid injury or to prevent further pain after the accident has occurred.

If the accident is severe or violent – for example, a car accident, or a slip on the ice – the brain teaches these IMG_3583muscles to stay tight and contracted. If you injure yourself on one side of your body and need to protect that injured limb until it is healed (as one does when using crutches), you can inadvertently learn to walk with a limp once the injury is healed.

When muscles stay tight, even when you’re using them for an activity, the brain loses the ability to fully contract and release the muscle. The ability to fully release the muscle is what gives the muscle power. This state of elevated muscle tonus and tension that won’t relax is called Sensory Motor Amnesia.

So how do you learn to regain symmetry and balance in the center of your body? Muscles that have learned to stay tight and contracted due to stress must learn to relax, release and move freely again. Many people can benefit from one on one clinical sessions with a qualified Somatic Educator skilled in the methods of Thomas Hanna. However, many people can easily learn to do this on their own, at home.

The video below can help you learn to lengthen both sides of the waist evenly so you can regain your internal awareness (called “somatic” awareness) and proprioception for improved balance and a smoother gait. This easy awareness exercise is best done after you learn to relax and release the waist muscles by doing arch and flatten, the side bend and the washrag somatic exercises. These can be found here, on the video page of my website.

To learn more somatic exercises and learn to relieve muscle pain and improve mobility, and somatic awareness, you can purchase my Pain-Free series of DVDs. Enjoy the video and enjoy standing tall!

Why Am I Limping, and Is It Cause For Concern?

Back, hip joint, knee pain, and piriformis syndrome pain are common reasons people seek out Hanna Somatics for pain relief.  Many clients present with posture that is “out of balance” – meaning that their hips and pelvis are not level, their leg length is uneven and their gait is not smooth. Some clients have said to me, “Just the other day someone asked me why I was limping, and I never even noticed I limped! All I know is that my back(or hip or piriformis) is killing me!”

They’re not concerned about their limp, because their limp feels “normal” to them. This is a perfect example of Sensory Motor Amnesia – the condition in which the brain literally forgets how to sense and move muscles. Their muscles have adapted to specific stress reflexes and they no longer move the way they once did. When you lose awareness of the way in which you move, this is indeed cause for concern.

Most of my clients with back, hip or piriformis pain associated with a limp were treated with:

  • physical therapy (most common)
  • cortisone shots (very common)
  • trigger point therapy
  • massage therapy
  • drugs
  • MRIs, X-rays, blood tests, nerve conduction tests

What was missing in the treatments of all of these clients was an understanding of how a limp develops, which muscles are involved in the need to limp, and how this kind of muscle dysfunction causes the muscles of the center of the body to contract constantly, even when they’re no longer needed for an action.

Limping means the muscles of the center of your body are out of balance.

When we walk we are meant to walk with a smooth, even gait. Our pelvis is perfectly designed for our upright, bipedal locomotion and the more we let our hips relax as we walk, the more effortless our movement will be (and the less joint pain we will have). Below is a great video of balanced, strong walking and upright posture – a necessity for African women carrying things on their heads.

This kind of natural movement is “the norm”….until something happens to put a “monkey wrench” in the workings of the brain.

When we have an accident – we fall, slip on the ice, fall on our coccyx, break a bone and have to compensate, protecting that part of the body – the brain instantly responds by contracting specific muscles of the trunk in order to protect that area. The muscles involved in this pattern are the lattissimus, obliques, adductors, abductors and abdominal muscles, which all contract together in an attempt to keep us up in gravity (see photo below). This protective “holding” pattern can, if it is on-going or severe enough, cause a limp to develop.

This kind of functional problem can, over time, create serious structural damage, like hip joint pain, labral tears, osteoarthritis and hip joint impingement.

The trauma reflex causes us to limp, putting too much weight into one side of the body.

If you’ve ever suffered any kind of accident that causes you to lose your balance, you might remember how you twisted suddenly to try and avoid the fall, only to fall anyway. The photo to the right is an excellent example of an involuntarily invoked trauma reflex – a desperate attempt by the brain to regain balance and not fall. For many people, this kind of accident results in an habituated posture in which the muscles on one side of the body are slightly tighter than the muscles on the other side.

When you get stuck in this particular stress reflex, pain isn’t far behind. You begin to walk like a car with one flat tire, “galumphing” from side to side. Anyone with a limp should learn to reverse it as soon as possible by re-educating the muscles involved in the pattern. It’s easy to do with Somatic Exercises and, if necessary, the skilled guidance of a Certified Hanna (Clinical) Somatic Educator.

Good somatic solutions for limping:

For those who own my Pain Relief Through Movement DVD, the following exercises focus on the waist muscles/trunk rotators, and will go a long way toward “fixing” the problem in and re-programming your muscles so you can walk evenly again:

  • side bend – addresses the obliques, which are muscles of side-bending
  • washrag – brings in gentle twisting of the pelvis, and shoulders, as the waist lengthens
  • human X **- the quintessential movement of “crawling,” which lengthens both sides of the body
  • steeple twist** – increases the ability to twist and lengthen the center of the body – back, abdominals, waist
  • walking exercises, part 1 & 2 **- freeing the pelvis and reintegrating a healthy pattern of walking.
  • hip lift and reach – frees the hips and pelvis as you add the shoulders for more movement.

** – these exercises are found on my “basics” DVD.

How Somatics Can Help Runners

Running is one of the most convenient activities available for those who want to move vigorously. 

University of Utah biologist David Carrier hypothesized that our ability to run long distances evolved in humans for the simple reason that the ability to pursue predators for long distances (endurance hunting) meant a steady food supply. We were born to run, but for some people, running is a painful and laborious activity.

As with any sport – and especially one that can be taken to an extreme, runners suffer from injuries and sensory motor amnesia. The most frequent running injuries are knee pain, iliotibial band syndrome,  plantarfasciitis and hip pain.

Running when injured creates more injury.

Many runners will often continue to run, even when they are nursing an old injury. Some of the runners I’ve worked with say that they figured they could just “run it out” thereby fixing the problem. Unfortunately this causes more harm than good. Here’s why:

  • When you’re injured, your muscles reflexively adapt and learn to move differently. This is called compensation.
  • Long term compensation develops into sensory motor amnesia (SMA).
  • Running while compensating for an injury doesn’t doesn’t change what your muscles are doing; it only creates more compensation.
  • You must first eliminate the compensatory pattern (the SMA), and then you can regain your original running form.

Runners often run on uneven, paved roads.

A majority of runners in cities and suburbs run on uneven asphalt roads. The road is slightly graded to allow for water runoff, so rather than using the legs and hips equally, they run with a slight tilt in the hips, with  more weight on one leg than the other. This causes the waist muscles on the higher side of the graded road to contract tighter than the other side. It’s slight, but when this kind of sensory motor amnesia develops it alters the gait and contributes to iliotibial band pain and knee pain. The angle of the road also put the foot an an awkward angle to the ankle.

Runners often have limited hip movement.

When hip and pelvis movement is limited, you will be more likely to have iliotibial band syndrome, back pain, hip joint pain and hamstring strains. A pelvis that doesn’t rotate gently doesn’t allow the body to move gracefully and efficiently. If the body is stiff and the hips and pelvis rigid, the swinging action of the legs while running (or walking) will come solely from the hip joint – what I like to call “running with your legs instead of your whole body.” This can create overuse injuries of the hips and hamstrings. Here’s a ChiRunning article that goes more into depth about pelvic rotation.

Orthotics and “supportive” running shoes reduces the foot’s ability to move.

The feet are one of the most important sensory organs of the body. When we encase our feet in  shoes we risk losing sensory awareness and motor control of the muscles of the foot and lower leg that help us stabilize ourselves for upright movement. There is more of a tendency to “heel strike” when wearing thicker running shoes. This is both jarring for the spine and inefficient for forward motion.

Orthotics, thought to fix foot problems, interfere in the ability of the feet to absorb impact properly and adjust to changes in terrain (as in trail running). Thankfully there’s a trend toward more minimalistic and “barefoot” running shoes, which allows both the foot and lower leg muscles to move naturally.

Here are 5 somatic exercises for an easy “warm up” before running:

  • back lift – for control of the back muscles
  • cross lateral arch and curl – for control of the abdominal muscles
  • side bend – to equalize waist muscle function
  • steeple twist – for gentle twisting of the shoulders, spine and hips
  • walking exercises – for proper mechanics of walking and pelvis rotation

After your run, try these:

Click here to purchase my Pain Relief Through Movement DVD or any of my other “Pain-Free” instructional DVDs.

Martha is available for specialty workshops and clinical teaching in the US and overseas. Contact her for more information.

Many thanks to Jim Hansen, a runner and Somatics enthusiast whose shared running experience helped me write this post. Check out his blog here.

Why Iliotibial Band Stretches Don’t Work, and What Does

Iliotibial Band Syndrome is a common problem with runners and cyclists.

The iliotibital band, commonly known as the “IT band,” is a band of tissue extending from the hip, along the outside of the thigh and knee.  With “Iliotibial Band Syndrome” the IT band becomes very tight and sore, making it difficult to exercise.

How does the iliotibial band syndrome occur and what can you do about it?

Iliotibial band syndrome occurs when the IT band becomes inflammed during repetitive flexion and extension of the leg in running, biking and hiking (this is a very simplistic explanation). I would offer another perspective – because not all runners, cyclists and hikers suffer from a tight iliotibial band and/or accompanying knee pain.

Iliotibial band syndrome is often the result of the “trauma reflex.”

The most common muscular pattern I see in people with iliotibial band pain is the “trauma reflex.” The photo at right is of a recent client – a soccer player – who complained of right sided iliotibial band pain, hamstring and knee pain. It is a perfect example of the trauma reflex. Notice the following:

  • the waist muscles on the left side of his body are tighter, hiking the left hip up higher than the right.
  • his left shoulder is pulled down in response to the tightening of the waist muscles.
  • the shift in his pelvis causes him to shift his weight to his right side.

When this occurs, the pelvis loses its equilibrium and balance, and twists slightly. This can occur if you’re a runner who slips in the mud, or a cyclist who falls off his bike. This “trauma reflex” affects the gait in such a way that one will run or walk as if he were a car with one flat tire. This kind of accumulated muscle tension on one side causes the IT band to tighten in order to stabilize the hip and knee. In this client’s case, we did a clinical session for the trauma reflex, and in one hour, his hamstring, knee and IT band pain disappeared once he learned to even out his waist muscles and regain symmetry in his pelvis.

One common treatment for  stretching out the IT band for a permanent pain fix.  The trouble is that they don’t work – and here’s why:

Stretching fascia that is attached to to muscles that are constantly contracting is an example of “spot work.” When you target just the spot, or muscle that hurts, you’re missing an opportunity to target the kinetic chain of muscles that are involved in the pain. When you target the muscle group and/or action pattern when you’re targeting the root cause of the pain.

Try this easy pandiculation for the iliotibial band pain relief:

To learn more about Hanna Somatics, and buy any Essential Somatics pain relief DVDs, click here.