I’ve gone to an acupuncturist, pain medicine doctor, sports medicine doctor, massage therapist, physical therapist – and they all told me, “you’ll never get rid of this. It will never go away.”
This is what my client, Joanne (not her real name) told me before her first clinical Somatics session. She had a herniated disc, severe back pain and sacroiliac joint pain. She had a feeling that “life’s impacts,” as she called them, had more of an effect on her than anything else. I agreed with her. I explained some basics about muscles and bones in order to demystify what up until then had been an elusive problem for her:
- Muscles attach to bones and muscles move bones.
- The brain and nervous system senses and moves your muscles.
- The brain reflexively responds and adapts over time to stresses in the environment by tightening muscles in specific, full body patterns.
- If these stress responses are on-going or severe enough (i.e. an accident), the brain and muscles learn to stay chronically contracted as if the stress were still occurring, even as if has stopped.
- Because muscles learn to be really good at contracting and holding the body tightly, they must learn to relax and release. This can only be achieved through improving one’s ability to sense and control one’s muscles and movement.
Herniated discs are the structural result of poor muscle function.
With the exception of a traumatic accident, discs herniate because the muscles attach to them are so strongly contracted – and unable to relax – that they push the disc material out. An X-ray can show a protrusion in your spine – but the question doctors fails to ask is, “What is happening in the muscles, that is putting excess pressure on the spine and discs?
Herniated discs are one of the most common muscle pain conditions I see in my clinical practice; they are yet another example of Sensory Motor Amnesia. More specifically, herniated discs are the result of habituation to two Somatic Stress Reflexes:
Trauma Reflex: The brain’s response to an accident, injury, surgery or one-sided functional task (such as holding a baby on one hip). The muscles of the waist and trunk rotators contract on one side in order to avoid pain. There is always a slight side bending or twist apparent in people with a trauma reflex. The waist muscles (the internal and external obliques, the quadratus lumborum, which “hikes” the pelvis on one side) cause an uneven pull on the lumbar spine (or on the cervical spine in the case of a cervical herniation). This, in affect, herniates the disc.
Green Light Reflex: This reflex contracts all the muscles of the back of the body, from sacrum to occiput, is a “call to action” response, invoked hundreds of times a day in our busy industrialized society. It is the cause of most chronic back pain. The muscles of the back contract strongly, yet feel weak and fatigued.
Over the course of five clinical Somatics sessions Joanne learned to release, relax and regain control overthe muscles of her waist, back and pelvis, all of which had become rigid and contracted over the years. She learned to pandiculate rather than stretch her muscles, restoring full muscle function and length to her weary muscles. When she learned to release her back muscles her shooting pain began to disappear. Once her waist and trunk rotators began to soften she enjoyed moving her hips and pelvis without fear of pain when she walked. “My husband won’t know what’s walking in the door!” she laughed after one session.
Here are three of the most important exercises that Joanne did to help her relax her back and waist muscles – Arch and Flatten, to release tight back muscles, the Side Bend and the Washrag.
Joanne now understood that her loss of body awareness and muscle control – the very thing that had contributed to her muscle pain – had developed over time due to stress. The next step for her is to continue to improve her ability to self-sense and self-correct through her practice of Hanna Somatic Exercises. Life is movement, and the learning is hers to explore for the rest of her life. She will only get better and better.
Her doctors were wrong and she knew it all along. Her pain has gone away.