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:

2 thoughts on “Try These Somatic Exercises to Prevent Back Surgery

  1. Martha,

    What causes back pain might be of interest to you and your readers:

    Grab your right thumb with your left hand. Now bend your right thumb toward your right elbow until you feel pain. Got some pain? Good. Now stop bending your thumb.

    How does that relate to back pain? Bend at the waist into any position you like. Hold that position long enough and you will eventually have pain somewhere. Just like in your thumb, you are stretching muscles, tendons, nerves, and ligaments farther and longer than they were designed to be stretched. You may also be compressing cartilage, discs, nerves, and bone longer and harder than they were designed to be compressed. The pain is your body asking you to stop doing whatever it is that causes pain. You have stressed your back. If you stop stretching or compressing before you feel pain, or as soon as you feel pain, there is little chance you have done any permanent damage. I.e., stop pulling on your thumb!

    If you continue to pull on your thumb, or stress you back, then worse things happen. A strain is a torn muscle or tendon. A sprain is a torn ligament. You can also damage nerves, tear cartilage, tear discs, and break bones, if you allow the stress to continue long enough. Torn muscles, ligaments, and tendons take 2-12 weeks to heal, depending on how much damage you did. Some cartilage doesn’t have the blood supply to heal well, but most heals in about the same amount of time. A bone contusion or fracture can take 6-18 weeks to heal. Nerves can take three months to heal.

    Most severely damaged tissue heals with scar tissue, which is not as strong as the original tissue. To make up for the lost strength, surrounding tissue must be stronger than it was before the injury, or repeat injuries become common.

    Chronic stress on your back causes pain, i.e. if you stretch or compress long enough you will have pain. Poor posture, overwork, being overweight, sudden motions, etc. all can lead to back pain. Most of our low back pain is due to accumulated stress: we sit too long with poor posture; we lift incorrectly, or too often, or too heavy an object; we weigh too much.

    Some low back injuries occur from sudden changes in direction, i.e., trauma: falls, motor vehicle accidents, collisions in sports, etc. The healing process is the same for both types of stress.

    After enough accumulated stress our pain becomes semi-permanent. It doesn’t go away when you let loose of your thumb. Then you have to take time to heal; 2 -12 weeks. Avoid the damage. Change positions a lot. Monitor your posture. Lift with your legs and a neutral spine. Get help lifting heavy objects. Lose weight if necessary. Keep active. Exercise in moderation. STOP WHEN YOU HAVE PAIN!

    Bill Yancey, MD
    Whatyourdoctor dot b l o g s p o t dot c o m

    • Hi Bill,

      Thanks for your addition to my blog! We are definitely on the same page about where back pain comes from. Accumulated stress – especially when it develops into Sensory Motor Amnesia – is at the root of chronic muscle pain. I work every single day with people who have been thrown in the medical garbage can and have spent upwards up $5-10,000 trying to find a “cure,” when the “cure” lies right between their ears: in their brain and sensory motor system.

      Here’s a slightly different tweak on the contention that quick movements can cause back pain: if one is stuck in Sensory Motor Amnesia, then yes, a sudden twist or movement can cause pain. If one is in control of one’s movement – and this can be achieved through Hanna Somatics, Tai Chi, or Feldenkrais, then being able to do quick movements is not only fine for the body, but an important skill to master!

      Good luck with your book! As a physician it would be such a benefit to your patients if you were to consider adding a “prescription” for Somatic Education to your list of what works.

      All the best,

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