I recently read an article about Mike Crawshaw, a young British singer, who stated that his “spine is crumbling” and to avoid any potential harm through surgery, he chose to exercise. One doctor is quoted as saying, ‘The right kind of exercise can be helpful. You can strengthen the back muscles that support everything. This helps deal with the spasms in the affected muscles that cause pain. It’s possible to help with these problems without surgery.’
Crawshaw made the best decision for himself by finding a way to strengthen his back muscles. The doctor’s statement, however, isn’t completely correct; strengthening back muscles “to support everything” will not help deal with muscle spasms in the areas that cause pain. If back muscles are stuck in a state of heightened tension that pulls the discs closer together, you are more likely to “strengthen your pain” than to relieve it.
First here is a perspective on degenerative discs from a Somatic Education perspective. Then we will discuss strengthening the back in order to “support” the allegedly weak spine:
Is a “degenerative disc” caused by a disease process or is it a case of poor muscle function, which results in compressed, herniated and otherwise weakened discs? The label “degenerative disc disease” sounds like a pathology that supposedly develops with age. Yes, arthritic changes can emerge due to age, poor diet, lack of sufficient water, lack of movement and overuse injuries; all of these can contribute to disc problems. Most “degenerative discs” that I have seen in my practice are another example of Sensory Motor Amnesia, which can be eliminated when one learns to regain control of one’s muscular system, improve nervous system function of the muscles and restore muscle length.
Muscles put pressure on discs. Release the tight muscles and the discs have more room to move.
In an X-ray, discs that are squeezed tightly together look as if they’re about to crumble, causing the spine to buckle like an unstable building. Look at the X-ray on the right. Notice how one disc (the black arrow) has a lot of space, while the other (white arrow) is squeezed together. It doesn’t look good, does it? The spaces between the discs are uneven and the spine is being pulled into an uneven “archer’s bow,” which gives the appearance of excess pressure on the lower vertebra (white arrow).
But what exactly pulls the spine into this shape?
Answer: the muscles.
And why would the muscles pull on the spine like this? They are stuck in what Thomas Hanna called the “Green Light Reflex,” a reflex that contracts the muscles to prepare them for action. This reflex, like all reflexes is simply an unconditioned response to stress. The problem occurs when it becomes conditioned and habituated; the brain can literally forget how to relax the muscles. Here’s the thing: you can’t see muscles on an X-ray; all you can see is the result of the bones being pulled by the muscles.
Never strengthen something you can’t feel.
Degenerative disc disease is a functional problem of the sensory motor system, not dissimilar to many other musculoskeletal problems that are deemed structural by the medical world. Once you lose awareness of your movement and how the way in which you respond and adapt to stress (mentally, emotionally and physically) you, too, may develop problems with your discs. There is a solution that doesn’t involve surgery: Clinical Somatic Education and Somatic Exercises.
We all need to be strong, so awareness of what you can and cannot feel and control in your body is the first step to strengthening. The second step is to regain full muscle function and length. Once this is achieved, your brain now works with a muscle that is not being restricted by Sensory Motor Amnesia. Think of it this way: moving with Sensory Motor Amnesia is like trying to drive with the emergency brake on. Once Sensory Motor Amnesia is eliminated, create an enjoyable strengthening routine and be sure to include Somatic Exercises as a warm-up and cool-down to maintain optimum muscle function.