Try These Somatic Exercises to Prevent Back Surgery

25 years ago Thomas Hanna, PhD, wrote in his book, Somatics, that 85% of adults suffer from back pain. That statistic hasn’t changed, (8 out of 10 people in the United States suffers at one time or the other with back pain), and little has been done to educate doctors or patients about the root cause of most back pain: the brain and the way in which it senses and controls the back muscles.

I was inspired to write this blog post because of a familiar advertisement in my Sunday New York Times for a back pain center in New York City that does less invasive back surgery: safest procedure, NO cutting, NO bleeding, NO drilling, NO scarring! The missing piece to this advertisement is “no sensible information about why your muscles are causing you pain!”

From my clinical experience many back surgeries could be prevented with some basic understanding of why back muscles become tight and painful and how to release and relax them. Back pain is not as mysterious as we are led to believe.

Surgery can be life saving, yet one study that looked at recovery rates for certain back pain surgeries concluded that “intensive rehabilitation” is, over time, more effective than surgery.

Somatic Education is the least invasive solution to back pain available.

Most chronic back pain develops over time as an habituated response to stress. The Landau Response (also referred to as the Green Light Reflex in Hanna Somatic Education) is a brain stem reflex that is triggered whenever  we are called upon to get something done – answer the phone, write emails, rush around, pay attention… hurry up!

Our back muscles, from the base of the skull down to the sacrum/tailbone contract, spurring us into action. These muscles also contract to allow us to run, jump, walk, and engage in vigorous, fun activities. If, however, these muscles are never taught to relax and release on a daily basis, they can end up constantly “switched on” and tight, painful, and sore.

This Green Light Reflex (also known as the Landau Response) is first triggered at the age of about five months, when a baby discovers his back muscles. All of the muscles on the back of the body contract – the neck muscles, rhomboids between the shoulder blades, upper trapezius, gluteals – to pick the head up. From that moment onward, for the rest of that person’s life, those back muscles will reflexively contract whenever there is a need to respond to a task.

There is nothing wrong with this reflex; it merely prepares us for an action. However, in today’s world, this reflex is triggered so continuously that, for many people, it gradually begins to habituate. Our brain literally teaches our back muscles to stay contracted and “frozen” in a constant state of  readiness (the photo at right shows a typical green light reflex posture).

If left unchecked, constantly contracted back muscles can lead to structural problems – herniated discs, bulging discs, and sacroiliac pain.

The prevalence of back pain has everything to do with the kind of lives that we live and the kind of society in which we live. In fact, we know that the areas where there is greater stress… namely urban industrial societies, we have the highest incidence of lower back pain.

–Thomas Hanna, PhD

This particular pattern of Sensory Motor Amnesia is reversible with a daily routine of Somatic Exercises. Somatic Exercises teach you to reeducate your muscles through slow, gentle, safe movement. You begin to regain voluntary control of muscles that have learned (due to stress adaptation) to stay tight and painful. You can learn the most important Somatic Exercises you will ever need to reverse and eliminate chronic back pain on my DVD, Pain Relief Through Movement.

Try these Somatic Exercises for back pain relief:

How a Clinical Somatic Approach Can Help Scoliosis

In my last blog post I discussed the important factor in “idiopathic” scoliosis: the environment. The environment here 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.

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. At the same time, 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 in particular 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 when one has 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.












BEFORE: Rita’s weight is pitched to the right. The right side of her 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.

AFTER: Rita’s scoliotic curve is not as distinct. She is lifted up slightly out of her right side and her weight is shifted more toward the 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

In one of my recent Essential Somatics® workshops in London, 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.

So is scoliosis genetic?

In 2007, the first possible genetic link to scoliosis was discovered. The defect in the CHD7 gene has been tied to idiopathic scoliosis (which means there is no known cause), so how much does this discovery actually help? 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.” From a Somatic Education perspective, the way we reflexively react and adapt to stress is what can determine whether or not one develops scoliosis.

I enquired more about my student’s friend and learned that she fell down an entire flight of concrete stairs and landed on her coccyx when she was younger. He told me, “She’s never been the same since.”

Scoliosis and the Trauma Reflex

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 (slipping on a patch of ice, falling down the stairs, etc.) and the need to avoid pain or injury. It can also develop gradually (limping, using crutches, wearing a medical boot after an injury/surgery, etc.) as you compensate until your injury is fully healed.

The trauma reflex involves all the trunk rotators of the core (latissimi dorsi, obliques, abdominals, abductors, adductors) – muscles that twist, rotate, and bend to the side 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. The fall my student’s friend suffered is indeed a serious accident and a perfect example of just the kind of trauma that could lead to scoliosis.

Somatic Exercises can help release 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. Every 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 private clinical sessions, there are specific Somatic Exercises that can begin to release the muscles that are the most complicit in the pattern of scoliosis:

  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 Leg and Hip Joints)

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

Here’s a tip for more efficient learning:

When doing the Steeple Twist, focus on lengthening the waist muscles, releasing the sides of the waist, expanding the ribcage, and allowing the pelvis to rock – be aware of any arching in your back and do not over-arch. 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 start learning the basics of Somatic Exercises!

Martha 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.