RELIEVE CHRONIC MUSCLE PAIN
Before we dive into the exploration of chronic muscle pain it is important to answer the following question: Have you ruled out disease, infection or structural damage to your body as the cause of your chronic pain? If so, chances are you’re dealing with chronic muscle pain or reoccurring injury due to chronic muscle contractions. This kind of chronic pain is caused the way we use our bodies every day. In other words, your pain has a functional cause and not a structural.
Now I hear you thinking: ‘But I’m doing a lot of good stuff, I go to the gym, stretch my muscles by doing yoga and have strengthened my muscles’.
I got you. Keep reading!
Somatic exercises are different from stretching or strengthening your muscles. It is a system of movement education based on the work of Thomas Hanna. Somatics excercises actually retrain the posture and movement patterns that are causing your pain by using the unique technique of pandiculation.
What conditions can Somatic Education help?
Somatic exercises can alleviate and prevent the following functional conditions:
- Back pain
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
- Disc problems
- Frozen shoulder
- Functional leg length discrepancy
- Idiopathic scoliosis
- Joint pain
- Piriformis syndrome
- Postural kyphosis
- Spasms & Cramps
- Tmj disorder
- Thoracic outlet syndrome
First things first. In order to understand how somatic exercises are different from stretching and strengthening we’ll dive into a little bit of functional anatomy.
Muscle memory and sensory motor patterns
Perhaps you have heard of the expression muscle memory before. Think of a toddler trying to eat for the first time. Holding a spoon and controlling the movement of the spoon will be quite tricky to start with, right? And actually getting the food in it’s mouth will be truly challenging the first couple of times. But after a while and lots of repetitions, the child will succeed. It has developed a so called sensory motor pattern.
What does the term Sensory motor system mean?
Now let’s say you are playing tennis. The sensory system (our senses) and motor system (movement) need to work together to play the game. You have to see the ball and move your racket simultaneously.
Our muscles and movement are controlled by our central nervous system and our brain. A sensory motor pattern in reality has nothing to do with the memory of a muscle, but everything with programming of the brain.
What are movement patterns?
Now we keep developing these kind of movement patterns throughout our whole lifespan, not just during childhood. The environment we live and work in, our emotional state, our personalities, trauma, surgery, pregnancy, tossing around of bags, the type of sports we play and the injury we suffered all have great impact on our posture and movement. You may have tried playing a musical instrument before. Remember how difficult is felt to control your hand and fingers to start with?
Damaging posture and movement pattern
So, we create a lot of posture and movement patterns throughout our daily lives. And unfortunately some of them are damaging. Sitting most of the days for instance, working long hours behind a computer or scrolling through our social media feed on our smartphones put a lot of strain on our bodies. Our brains and nervous system pay attention do these reoccurring patterns since making automatic and fast decisions made us survive for ages!
Strengthening your weak muscles to get out of pain
You may have been advised to strengthen certain muscles to fix your reoccurring back, neck, shoulder or hip pain. And still it did not solve the problem. But lack of strength is usually not the only problem in the case of chronic muscle pain. Building more strength before you are able to consciously release muscle groups, can even increase muscular tension in the muscle and actually increase your pain.
Chronic muscular pain is rarely caused by a single muscle or even a group of muscles. It usually is a problem of damaging full- body movement patterns. Before you want to strengthen a muscle group you should be able to voluntarily release your muscles first.
Why stretching is not always the answer in chronic muscle tightness & pain
First of all I would like to make a distinction between static and active stretching. Remember how your doctor tests your reflexes by using this little hammer just below your knee to see if your lower leg kicks up? That reflex is called a stretch reflex. When you start lengthening en stretching your muscles beyond a points that’s comfortable, neurons start sending messages to the muscle fibers in order to contract the muscle again. This is a defending mechanism of your body in order to protect the muscles, tendons and joints against injury.
And now, and this is SUPER important to remember:
So we actually need to change the brain setting of the muscle tension through the unique technique of pandiculation, which I’ll tell you more about in a minute. Furthermore the stress reflex will most certainly kick in when you start passively stretching already chronically tight muscles. But here is the thing; just passively stretching does not change any damaging movement patterns that are causing your pain.
But should we stop doing yoga now?
So is there something wrong with stretching? Should we stop doing (yin) yoga all together? No, absolutely not! (Yin) yoga has countless other benefits. But if your chronic pain is caused by habitual muscular contractions as a result of damaging movement patterns, you should be able to release your muscles first before you start stretching or strengthening the muscles. You will come to find out that Somatic Exercises will actually improve your yoga practice and any other kind of sports or daily activities.
Why sensory motor amnesia is the real culprit
Our sensory motor patterns keep responding to our daily mental and physical stresses with specific muscular reflexes. In the long run these reflexes will create chronic muscular contractions, which we cannot voluntarily release anymore. This state of not being able to sense and control muscle groups is called sensory- motor amnesia and was discovered by Thomas Hanna.
Luckily these reflexes can be unlearned through specific somatic exercises. In this way you’re actually retraining the brain and nervous system and reprogramming the sensory motor system. Remember playing that new musical instrument or sport again. Before the new movements become automatic, you have to practice them slowly & repeatedly first.
Pandiculation releases muscle tention
By doing these very slow somatic exercises you allow your brain and muscles to sense, release and control overworked and chronically tight muscles. Thus retraining the posture and movement patterns that are causing you pain. The unique technique of first deliberately tightening your muscles and then very slowly releasing them is called voluntary pandiculation.
Have you ever seen a cat, dog or baby wake up from their nap? Animals tend to arch their spines and baby’s stretch out their little legs and arms. This movement of contracting and releasing muscles sends feedback about the level of muscle tension to your brain.
In this manner you’re resetting the resting level of muscle tension and thereby resetting the ability of muscle control. In other words: pandiculation reawakens your sensory motor system and ends the cycle of chronically tight muscles.
Thomas Hanna developed somatic movement exercises that use this natural pandicular response. I teach these somatic movement exercises in either private or group classes.