There are strengthening and stretching exercises, pain meds, muscle relaxants, skeletal manipulation, spinal decompression devices, acupuncture, bodywork of various sorts, yoga and laser therapy.
You may be familiar with these therapeutic approaches. You may have found that they bring relief that lasts no more than a few days or a few hours. Practitioners end up administering the same treatment again, and again and, if asked, tell you that’s what you should expect.
Of the approaches I listed, the ones that sound like they come closest to relaxing your back muscles are stretching and massage. Neither of these approaches works any better than the others because any relaxation they produce is temporary. It’s temporary because your brain controls your muscle tension and your brain is conditioned to maintain your muscular tension at a “set point” to which your back muscles return: always tight.
So, what you need is a way to change your brain-conditioning to change the resting state of your back muscles to relaxation, instead of to, “always tight.”
Another way of saying, “change your brain-conditioning” is, “relearn control of your muscles.” “Conditioning” and “learning” are the same thing.
If, after reading this article, you still want to explore some of the usual therapeutic approaches, perhaps you’d best bookmark this page. You can come back to it after you’ve finished your tour (and testing) of those other approaches. I expect you’ll be back.
WHAT ALL THE USUAL THERAPEUTIC APPROACHES HAVE IN COMMON
What the usual approaches have in common is that they all attempt to counteract or oppose symptoms that keep reappearing. They address symptoms, not the causes of those symptoms. “Symptoms” include back muscle pain, spinal mis-alignment, subluxations, disc bulges, facet joint irritation, muscle spasms and sciatica; these symptoms are effects, not causes.
For example, misalignment doesn’t cause muscle spasms; it’s the other way around: muscle spasms cause misalignment. Bones (vertebrae) go where muscles pull them.
While counteracting symptoms may seem reasonable (and is all many people care about, as long as they get some relief), it’s ineffective in the long term and leaves you having to limit your activities to protect your back.
That’s what happens when therapy doesn’t address the underlying cause.
What’s necessary is not to counteract, oppose, or suppress symptoms, but to undo their underlying cause, altogether. Counteracting, opposing, and suppressing are different from undoing the underlying cause, as I will explain, shortly.
Let’s slow down, here, and make that point clearer.
SYMPTOMS vs. CAUSES
People often mistake symptoms for causes. The usual therapies all treat lower back pain symptoms as if they’re a sign of something happening to the body, rather than something that the body is doing to itself that causes the symptoms.
In that view, misalignment and subluxations “just happen”; discs bulge and degenerate because of “degenerative disc disease” (the cause of which, therapists wrongly attribute to aging, to your genes, or can’t explain). Sciatica “just happens”. Lower back pain is supposedly caused by conditions beyond our control.
But these symptoms are within your control — if you take the approach that addresses the underlying cause.
The Underlying Cause
Tight back muscles cause most back pain. The usual causes of tight back muscles are
- an injury such as an accident or hard fall
- frequent and ongoing repetition of bending and lifting movements
- long-term stress (nervous tension).
In an accident, the pain, violent motions, and shock of the accident cause muscular cringing, or tightening, a reaction that sets in long-term.
In repetitive bending and lifting movements, we get so ready to do those movements that we never relax completely, and strain patterns form.
In long-term stress, we get tense and stay tense for so long that we get used to being tense and stay tense, automatically.
These situations lead to abnormal brain conditioning. Muscles stay tight, from then, on.
(A “lifting injury” isn’t an injury, at all, but a sudden spasm triggered by an increase of muscular contraction in already-too-right muscles. Contraction – burn – pain – cringe – tighter contraction – worse pain — sounds like a spasm, doesn’t it?)
Abnormal brain conditioning causes overly tight back muscles. Another term for “abnormal brain conditioning” is “abnormal habit”.
Habit keeps the muscles tight, automatically. Habit is what makes the way we move move different from the way someone else moves. Habit controls posture. Habit controls spinal alignment. Habit keeps the muscles in the state of tension originally triggered by injury, repetitive movement, or stress.
Habitual back muscle tension makes muscle spasms more likely; the tighter the habit, the more likely spasm is to occur.
Habitual back muscle tension causes most back pain.
Relief of habitual tension can’t be done by stretching, manipulation, or any of the usual approaches I mentioned because those approaches only oppose the habit that keeps muscles tight. They don’t change it, don’t normalize it. They try to counteract it. They “resist” it. The tension habit persists.
Symptoms return shortly after the usual kinds of therapy.
Where muscles are concerned, habitual patterns of muscular tension have a special name: muscle memory (more properly called movement memory).
Ring a bell?
THE ALTERNATIVE: CHANGING MUSCLE TENSION HABITS
When chronic muscle tension ends, pain ends. Pressure comes off discs. Nerves come free from entrapment. The facet joints of vertebrae no longer rub together. Alignment corrects itself to a healthy flexibility. If tissue healing is needed (such as for irritated facet joints of vertebrae) healing can now occur.
Why Did Your Back Muscles Start To Hurt?
Simple answer: muscle fatigue, “the burn” they say to go for, in athletics. What “the burn” is, is oxygen starvation of the muscles from being too tight for too long.
If you pay attention to what happens in you when you’re in a hurry or in a state of intense attention (“stress”), you’ll notice that your back muscles always tighten up.
Over your lifetime, that kind of situation has happened over and over so often and for such prolonged periods of time (in your “way of life”) that you stayed tense and formed a tension habit.
You may never have noticed that you were tense that way until your back muscles started to hurt — and it may not have occurred to you that your symptoms (i.e., pain, etc.) came from your muscles being tight all the time.
Other Conditions of Low Back Pain
Tight back muscles pull neighboring vertebrae closer together, squeeze the discs in between, and cause a host of problems commonly regarded by therapists as different “disease entities” called by different names, but all from the same cause:
- disc bulges
- degenerative disc disease
- spontaneous fusion of vertebrae
- disc herniation
- sciatica (pinched sciatic nerve)
The cure for all is the same.
Clinical Somatic Education
The purpose of clinical somatic education and somatic education exercises is to for you to relearn control of overly tight muscles, to create a new movement memory free of the muscle-tension habit. Your back muscles come free and symptoms disappear. It’s a long-term change that occurs relatively quickly, in this approach.
Clinical somatic education has two forms: clinical techniques and somatic education exercises. You may resort to either or both.
How it Works
What makes somatic education different from the usual therapies is that it uses an action related to yawning to relearn control of muscles. That action is called, pandiculation.
Usually, a person with back pain can relax only so far and no farther. They’re stuck tight. Pandiculation causes a much deeper relaxation, so so rest at true rest — which is to say, relaxed, pliant, strong and comfortable.
By pandiculating, you re-learn control of muscles. As you saw in the video, pandiculation produces results different from the usual therapies. You may have noticed that many of the “before” and “after” changes occurred after one session.
What therapies do you know of that produce that much change after one session — a lasting change? So, clinical somatic education is an exception to the rule.
Re-Learning to Control Your Back Muscles
The word, re-learn, might not quite seem to you, to fit, since you have no memory of learning control of your back muscles to begin with. That learning at first occurred when you were very young, at about three months of age, when you were first learning to lift your head and to sit up and to stand and to walk.
You need to re-learn control because, over the course of your life, you went through situations that made you tense up in ways that involved your back muscles.
You developed the unconscious habit of holding yourself tight (as if to be tight were your normal state).
Eventually, you got stuck with tight back muscles and a diagnosis of low back pain, lumbar pain, subluxation, degenerative disc disease (“DDD“), sciatica, spinal stenosis, ankylosing spondylitis, or something similar and frightening-sounding.
All you really need is to re-learn control of your back muscles.
If that seems too simple, it’s likely that you are in the grip of the memories of your previous experience of therapy or the prognosis of doctors and therapists and expect this to be like that. People often try to understand something new in terms of something they already know. But this isn’t like that.
CLINICAL SOMATIC EDUCATION
During clinical somatic education sessions, muscle relax and comfort improves during the session. Usually, a few sessions are required for a complete change. You come to a practitioner of clinical somatic education who guides you through pandiculation actions — which are comfortable-to-do (and which rapidly reprogram muscle/movement memory, long-term).
Below, you see a video that shows part of a typical clinical session for clearing up lower back pain.
Some practitioners offer a money-back guarantee of satisfaction.
Somatic Education Exercises
If you can’t get to a practitioner, you can get lasting relief (more gradually) by somatic education (pandiculation) exercises.
Unlike strengthening exercises or stretching, somatic education exercises work by improving control of your own muscle tension. Your muscles lengthen as you relax, accomplishing the hoped-for result of stretching. As you relax, your muscles get refreshed, again, and being refreshed, are stronger, accomplishing the hoped-for result of strengthening exercises. Pandiculation accomplishes the hoped-for result of strengthening exercises and stretching — only better.
In both cases, clinical sessions and somatic education exercises, back muscle tension virtually never returns to the painful level, but increases or decreases within a normal range under life’s stresses.
The exercises enable you to keep yourself free and comfortable so that a recurrence of symptoms is unlikely.
There is an exception. If someone’s back has been so tight for so long that discs have ruptured, or spontaneous fusion of vertebrae has started to occur, or narrowing of nerve channels (stenosis) has occurred, it’s too late. Then, it’s surgery. After that, it’s clinical somatic education to prevent a recurrence.
Clinical somatic education is a highly personalized process, not a one size fits all process, so you will have a functional assessment done of your condition before starting sessions and you’ll know, with a high degree of accuracy, how many sessions will be required (generally, a small number). You can expect relief that lasts because the underlying cause — the muscular tension habit — has been undone.
The most common question I hear from clients after a session is, “Why isn’t this better known?”
How To Get Lower Back Pain Relief
You relearn control of your back muscles and the pain disappears. This result stands in stark contrast to the approach and result of the usual therapies.
So now I’ve told you something new about back pain and how to get lower back pain relief. Consider it fully and choose what you will do. If you’re serious about getting relief from low back pain, you’ll like clinical somatic education.
Lawrence Gold is a Hanna Somatic Educator in clinical practice since 1990. He spent 1997-1999 on-staff at The Wellness and Rehabilitation Center of the Watsonville Community Hospital, in California, before returning to private practice for a worldwide clientele. Reach him, here, if you’d like to consult him about your back pain; note the free consultation option.