Back Pain: It’s Time To Ask Why

A mindful approach to back pain

A recent New York Times article discusses a new approach to easing back pain, called “mindfulness-based stress reduction.” This method involves “a combination of meditation, body awareness and yoga, and focuses on increasing awareness and acceptance of one’s experiences, whether they involve physical discomfort or emotional pain.”

The article cites a study conducted on mindfulness meditation and behavioral cognitive therapy for back pain, which reports that “many people may find relief with a form of meditation that harnesses the power of the mind to manage pain.”

It is a relief to see an article in a major newspaper that reports a different perspective (a somatic perspective!) on back pain. The somatic perspective is the understanding that we humans are not inanimate objects that can fixed like a broken toy or washing machine, but are self-guiding, self-sensing, self-teaching synergistic systems that are experienced from the inside out and, given the right feedback and stimulation, can improve through retraining of the mind, brain, and body.

Somatic Education pioneers as Elsa Gindler, F.M. Alexander (“the Alexander Technique”), Moshe Feldenkrais, Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen and Thomas Hanna, PhD, have known for decades that by turning our attention inward to the sensations, through movement, of our own bodies, we can affect profound improvement and change our ability to function in an efficient, balanced, coordinated, and controlled manner. We can reverse the adverse effects of stress, relieve our own pain, and improve life through reeducating our brains and our movement.

This paradigm shift was bound to happen because, as the article states,

Sixty-five million Americans suffer from chronic lower back pain, and many feel they have tried it all: physical therapy, painkillers, shots.

This is something I hear every day when I work with clients: “I’ve tried everything to relieve my pain and only gotten short-term relief. There is something I’m doing – or have done that is causing the pain.” I have written previously about the questionable use of MRIs as a diagnostic tool for back pain, as well as why muscle pain is not a medical problem, but a functional problem in need of reeducation.

The Importance of Asking WHY

And yet there is still something missing from the mindfulness approach to healing back pain: an understanding of why back pain (or neck, shoulder, hip, knee or foot pain) occurs and an interest in finding the answer. The simple question, “why does this happen?” is not being asked. When that question is left out of the equation, comments such as this one from the New York Times article, will be repeated:

It may not be for everybody,” [Dr. Goyal] said, noting that some people with back pain find yoga painful.

Until the day that researchers pick up the books and research of Thomas Hanna and begin learning about Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA), brain reflexes, and pandiculation, nature’s “reboot” for the sensory motor cortex, they will always come up short in their quest to help those in pain. SMA is what researchers and practitioners the world over are looking at when they study back (or neck/shoulder/hip) pain – they just don’t know it.

Meditation is a wonderful tool for self-regulation, stress reduction, and pain relief, yet the root cause of muscle pain – the brain, and the way in which it habituates to stress reflexes, and thus organizes and moves our bodies – is where the gold lies. When you lose the ability to sense and move yourself fully, you will find yourself moving with less freedom, more pain, and more frustration. The answer lies within you and your ability to regain your movement. Without addressing the sensory motor system, brain reflexes, and how and why muscles become tight and painful, studies will continue to report that “this approach doesn’t work for everyone.”

And that would be a shame for those 65 million back pain sufferers across the United States.

9 thoughts on “Back Pain: It’s Time To Ask Why

  1. Reblogged this on What's for dinner, Doc? and commented:
    Great information about treating back pain without drugs. There is a national push to reduce the use of opioid pain medication (narcotics) because of the risks of addiction, overdose and deaths. I agree with the FDA’s black box warning about the dangers of narcotics. However there is an absolute need for short term narcotic use for acute pain and for carefully monitored chronic pain management. I continually rely on somatic movement techniques to reduce my overactive “pain response” to my injuries. I learned them from this website and by reading Martha Petersen’s book. Enjoy the article and rethink pain management.

    • Hi Tracey,

      Thanks so much for your comment! I, too, am thrilled that there is a national push to reduce the use of opioids as well. There is definitely a place for short term use of meds for acute pain. Having had several knee surgeries (dance injuries) I can attest to that. The “what next?” and “why” certain pain conditions develop is the information that can, from my experience, fill the gap and complement pain management.

      I have know a few too many clients whose first foray into opioid use was through chronic back pain. They’d completely lost control of their movement, their muscles and were lacking any roadmap to regaining control of themselves. Clinical somatics sessions and the slow improvement that comes through a somatic movement practice is what has kept them out of pain. I am hopeful that there will eventually be a partnership between Somatic Education and the medical world!

      Thanks for the reblog and for all that you offer your readers!

      • Martha,
        I can honestly say that stumbling onto your blog has changed my life. Only someone with chronic injuries can really appreciate the benefits of somatic movement. I’m a believer. Thank you for the compliment.
        All the best,

  2. Thank you so much, Tracey! And thank you for helping others. As human Somas, we’re all innately wanting to move themselves to our own place of efficiency and spaciousness; knowing that what I write is helpful to others brings me great joy!

    All the best,

  3. Thanks for this article. Like Tracey (through whose blog I read your piece) I’m a believer. I received several injuries from a car accident which turned into chronic pain. Joining a mindfulness/meditation and yoga program at a rehab hospital made a big difference in my life. I still use pain relievers when I am out of my mind with pain, but I learned other techniques too, and these things have helped.

    • Hi Cynthia,

      I’m so glad the somatic movements are helping you. I would highly recommend having a series of hands-on clinical sessions as well if there’s a practitioner near you. Let me know where you live and I can refer you.

      The movements are amazing – and they’re the self-care “homework” for the clinical sessions that Thomas Hanna created to help people get more rapid and deeper relief.

      All the best,

  4. Thanks for posting about this article – it is a good one to pass on to friends! I’ve already passed back to you how much difference your Somatic exercises have made to me. Having lived with pain at some level a great deal of the time for over 20 years (probably a combination of hypermobile tendencies, injury and sensory motor amnesia), with acute episodes of spasm so bad as to make me unable to weight bear, I had made strides with the more traditionally ‘prescribed’ routes such as Pilates, also finding Katy Bowman’s Restorative Exercise helpful. But I still had ‘flare ups’ and regular episodes of pain. I always minimized pharmaceutical usage as much as possible, but nevertheless used anti-inflamatories much more than I would have liked, which impacted on my gut.
    It was not until I found Somatics that, at 55, I managed to access longer periods that were largely pain free and to be able to respond effectively to indications of a flare up without the sense of impending crisis.
    I have been using meditation extensively in the last six months as part of treatment for post-concussion syndrome. It has been interesting to discover the positive loop between my use/awareness of Somatics and meditation. They each fee the other, to some extent relying on the same emphasis on mindful awareness. However, I do not believe that meditation alone could have freed me from pain without the Somatics ‘reboot’.
    So, once again, many thanks, and let’s hope that more researchers begin to hear . . .

    • Hi Gina,

      Thank you so much for this comment. Your journey to a new sense of yourself is why I teach this work all over the world. You echo the sentiments of so many people who have found a certain level of benefit from many different methods, but still felt that something was missing. The beauty of Hanna Somatics is that you are, quite literally, rebooting your central nervous system as well as the brain and all areas of it.

      I, too, hope that researchers find Hanna’s work and begin to dig. I think they will. People are looking AT sensory motor amnesia, but they still don’t quite know what it is they’re looking at. We’re all wanting awareness, spaciousness and freedom, control and ease when it comes right down to it.

      All the best,

  5. Pingback: Move Without Pain Fundamentals Immersion Course: Learn to Live Pain-Free – Pain Relief Through Movement

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