Massage is Better, But Somatics is Best for Chronic Back Pain Relief

A new study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, and funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, concludes that,

“Massage therapy may be better than medication or exercise for easing low back pain in the short term.”

The researchers found that, when used to treat low back pain, massage therapy was superior to painkillers, anti-inflammatory drugs, muscle relaxants, and physical therapy. In Sweden, however, a recent study found the Sensory Motor Learning, which is another term for Somatic Education, is even better for back pain. This study concluded that it is a superior “evidence-based” treatment for back pain.

In light of NHI’s conclusion that massage therapy is superior to standard medical practice, in addition to the Swedish study, I’d say that it’s time for a rigorous clinical study on Somatic Education.

Eliminate pain for the long-term.

If passive massage therapy is effective in alleviating the symptoms of back pain and allowing one to continue to be active, then it would stand to reason that an active modality that engages the client in changing the state of their own muscles, would work even better.

I’ve been a massage therapist for 25 years.  I still give massages, but I let people know that if their pain is chronic (and not just a need for stress reduction), they will get more out of Somatics than out of massage. Once they learn to reverse their pain, they enjoy their massage much more!

Most massage therapists are well trained and certainly well-intentioned.  But even massage therapy doesn’t get to the root of why we develop back pain, and how to address it so that people learn to eliminate it.  Chronically tight muscles that are “on” 24/7 have learned to stay contracted (this is what Somatic Educators call Sensory Motor Amnesia), and no amount of kneading, pounding, or passive stretching will change that situation until the brain gives the muscles a signal to relax. That can only come from the client on the table!

Hanna Somatics doesn’t just teach people how to reverse their chronic muscle pain. It also teaches them to improve their posture, and improve their flexibility without painful stretching. You also learn to become aware of your movement habits, which helps you regain mastery over your movement in order to prevent injury or recurrence of your pain.

There are a lot of benefits of massage: increased lymph circulation, increased oxygenation of the tissues, and reduction of anxiety are among the benefits. Massage therapy gives you an opportunity to relax, stop moving, stop thinking, and let go. This is why it’s so pleasant. It’s a mini-vacation. There are no full body brain stem reflexes being invoked while getting a massage (we hope!), so the constant “looping” of brain to muscle “contract” messages takes a break for just a short while.

But because no reeducating of muscles takes place during a massage, the benefit is short-lived. Those in pain who are looking for hard answers and sensible solutions to back pain – and who don’t have the money for a weekly massage – can grow frustrated with the need to rely on someone else to alleviate their symptoms.

I welcome a study that compares current medical protocols, massage therapy and Somatic Education. Let’s compare, for instance, Hanna Somatic Education, the Alexander Technique, the Feldenkrais Method, physical therapy, massage therapy, Rolfing, and Pilates (these seem to be the most common “alternative methods” for pain relief) and see which method confers the most benefit for the fewest dollars across the board. It’d be a huge study, but one that would be worth the effort.

Standing Up is Better For Your Health

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.

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 there is work to be done, not because they want a work out, as does Rumsfeld. 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, shoulder and back 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 sessions with clients.

If you are someone who is always rushing around, which causes the back muscles to contract strongly (the Green Light Reflex or Landau Response), you’ll pitch yourself forward and over-arch the lower back when seated. This will cause the hip flexors to contract to keep you upright. They stay tight until given the signal to relax. When you get up you’ll stand up from your chair slowly because the front of your hips will still be contracting.

If you tend to slouched while seated (Red Light Reflex), you will collapse in the middle of your body as the abdominals contract tightly. This will cause your breathing to be shallow rather than relaxed. This rounded posture, which rounds the pelvis under, and causes what is now called “head forward posture,” is a sure-fire recipe for back and neck pain.

Why sitting is no good for you

  • 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

Why standing is better

  • 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 & Curl, Reach to the Top Shelf, the arm movements of the Washrag). Or you can create your own – if you do, please share them with me so I can share them with my readers.

Pain Relief DVDs for the Whole Body

I have gotten some wonderful feedback from people about my Pain Relief Through Movement DVD.  Here’s what people are saying:

This DVD is great! So clear and concise!

  • I’m very pleased with the DVD… It’s a class act all the way through. Even my wife was impressed with it on our initial passthrough viewing, and was inspired to get down on the floor several times when something looked especially intriguing.

I just watched your DVD and wanted to tell you how impressed I am with it. It’s wonderful!

  • Excellent work on the DVD!  I’ve run through the complete program twice… and have incorporated the 10/15 minute variations prior to training along with playing around with some movements post-workout.  The DVD/audio has really helped with synchronizing breaths with movements.

I got the DVD… have been through the exercises a couple times.  I can feel a pretty significant difference in the looseness of my hips and back before and after the exercises.

My Pain-Free DVDs will be coming out in the Fall!

On June 20th and 21st I collaborated once again with Coastline Pictures on a series of instructional DVDs that will cover how to release muscle pain for more targeted areas:

The movements you will learn will help you to reverse conditions such as plantar fasciitis, hip joint pain, TMJ, sciatica, knee pain, piriformis syndrome and shallow breathing. You will also learn wonderful, safe “no-stretch stretches” for the hamstrings, calves and psoas muscles.  These DVDs will also be high quality and easy to follow – packed with new movements you can do anytime, anywhere for easy pain relief and improved awareness.You will continue to improve your posture, while educating your brain and muscles to improve balance, coordination and efficiency of your muscles and movement.  These will be a wonderful addition to your Somatics library!

I’ve received several emails from health professionals who wish to introduce Somatic Movements to their patients. These additional DVDs – just like the first one –  have been created with the understanding that anyone can learn Somatics. The concepts, methods and movements of Hanna Somatic Education are communicated with enough clarity to enable anyone to learn how to reverse their own pain.

To purchase my “basics” DVD, Pain Relief Through Movement, visit the Essential Somatics® store.