Do You Have Chronic Back Pain?
Chances are, you have suffered from a spot of back pain at some point in your life. In most people, it will heal of it’s own accord. Once the body gets moving again, the muscles release and recover. However, in a growing proportion of the population, back pain can hang around or re-occur, so that the condition becomes chronic.
Release Yourself from the Vicious Circle
Chronic lower back pain creates a vicious circle in which movement is limited due to pain and restriction. When we (unconsciously or consciously) prevent an area of the body from moving, we lessen the blood flow and lymphatic drainage to that area, The area becomes tight and stiff, this can contribute to an increase in pain.
This is why the latest evidence-based guidelines for the treatment of lower back pain is to get moving. Once the initial inflammatory period is over, we must start moving and find ways to regain confidence in the health of our back.
This is all very well but, for any one who has ever had back spasms or sciatica, getting moving seems counter-intuitive and even dangerous. In fact, we might feel fearful about what has “gone wrong” with our spine. The diagnostic names given “three joint degenerative disease” or “facet joint disease” or descriptions of misplaced or crumbling vertebrae are enough to make one never move one’s spine again! However, this entirely understandable reticence to move creates a vicious circle.
Specialised Gentle Yoga
Gentle yoga, specialised for back pain sufferers, offers a great way out of this conundrum. Yoga gives us space and permission to listen to the body’s messages (tweaks, twinges, aches, gripping, releases, softening) and respond accordingly. Starting to practice yoga on a regular basis with the guidance of an experienced teacher helps the student to establish a new collaborative relationship with the body. Once the nervous system starts to feel the benefit of this process it begins to allow the muscles to let go of the unconscious tension held within them. When this happens the vicious cycle of pain is broken and healing can occur.
Body – Mind Therapy
Many people see the body as a vehicle for transporting their minds. A common way to treat the body is to bend it to our will, pushing it through great endurance tasks. These tasks may be strenuous like gardening or carrying heavy loads in uncomfortable ways. However, less strenuous activities such as sitting in cars or sofas are also challenging for the body. These kinds of seats are designed to slouch in. Our spine assumes a c-shape or s-shaped curve that creates imbalance in our spine, restricts our breathing and dulls our mood. The body understandably protests – It has evolved to breathe deeply, and move freely, not to sit and slump.
Emotional Causes of Pain
There are other insults the body has to endure, such as money worries, shocking or traumatic events, feeling unsupported, loneliness, bereavements and difficult break ups. All these life experiences have their impact on the body as well as the mind. Emotions and feelings can be identified by physical brain states and measurable chemical changes. A separate body and mind is actually impossible. In fact, some researchers have gone so far as to label the body as the unconscious mind. They postulate that we hold memories of past injury, insult and trauma in the tissues; in the words of a highly esteemed trauma researcher, Bessel van der Kolk “The Body Keeps the Score.”
Examples of holding emotions in tissues might be rounding our shoulders, tightening our jaw or gripping our thighs together. This can go on long after we feel we have emotionally processed the experience. Gentle breathing and movement can help us to release layers of this unconscious holding. Often we are not even aware of the release of tensions related to emotional holding; there is just a feeling of lightness and peace. However, sometimes there is a deeper sign of release, some tears, a long sigh, a palpable feeling of relief.
Physical Causes of Pain
More often than not, pain can be a consequence of imbalance in the muscular-skeletal system that creates strain. These imbalances can be due to uncomfortable shoes, carrying things badly, repetitive tasks like desk-work or gardening, surgical operations, childbirth, ailments or accidents. Just as with emotional trauma, the body keeps the score and continues to protect the area or hold on to the learned pattern even long after the shoes or the heavy satchel is discarded.
The Moving Spine
The spine is a particularly vulnerable place as the joints are so finely tuned. The vertebrae are complicated joints, which house the spinal cord and form spaces for the nerves to branch off and connect with the rest of the body. Holding ourselves a little too far forward, backwards, left or right of our centre can be very uncomfortable for the body as a whole. The muscles will be under excess strain as they try to manage the situation in order to remain stable in standing and walking.
There is an interesting paradox about the tolerances of this finely tuned structure. The spine is built for movement, so why is it so delicate under loads? Understanding this paradox helps us to realise why gentle yoga is the best route to a healthier spine. The tolerances of the spine are quite low but only for habitual holding patterns. A small deviation in the curves of the spine or the relationship of the skull and the pelvis can create havoc – if this becomes a habitual holding pattern. It also must be stated that many people have very strong imbalances and pathologies in the spine and experience no pain at all!
However, in some people, habitual holding of tissue near a misplaced vertebrae can hold it in the uncomfortable place. We might get that vertebrae re-aligned by an osteopath and that might stick, if we are lucky. The problem is that often, once we go back to our habitual walking, sitting, standing postures, we activate the old holding pattern. This will pull it back to the habitual place. The result being… we are stuck with it!!
However, given the right conditions we can realign our own spines or make adjustments so that any osteopathic adjustment will hold in the long term. To achieve this we need to move through our full range of (comfortable) motion in three dimensions, in all the joints of the body, particularly the spine. When we do this on a regular basis, there is an increase in the neuro-muscular communication through the motor and sensory nervous pathways. Due to this increased fine motor control, we are able to access more fluidity and detail in our movement. We often learn to consciously engage muscles that we didn’t know we had. Consequently, the spine is rejuvenated, liberated and nourished. The movement creates increased flow of interstitial fluid, lymph and blood. The intervertebral discs become more plump and juicy; unwanted substances are carried away through the lymph; and important nutrients can be transported into the bones and tissues. Communication at a nervous system and cellular level improves enormously when we move slowly and consciously.
Much of the gentle yoga practice involves reassessing our posture and movement by examining the relationships we are holding between our main bony structures. We start to get more of an understanding of how the bones articulate and communicate with each other through our whole system. We start to notice for ourselves what parts are stuck, and what parts are too loose. By practicing regularly, we begin to be able to notice, question, unwind tension and allow a more efficient co-ordination of joints to occur.
Relaxing and Enjoyable
All this sounds rather involved, yet in practice it is very simple, enjoyable and relaxing. This kind of movement, coupled with awareness, gives us a space in our busy lives to turn inwards and assess how we hold ourselves. We learn how we use our spine, what our stance is, where we can move freely and where we feel stiff. By getting to know our body in this way, it learns to let go of stress and tension.
Gentle Movement is the Best Choice
The incidence of lower back pain is increasing amongst the population worldwide. This is not surprising given the increase in stress levels, sedentary work, use of laptops and mobile phones. In 2016 NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) published their updated guidance for the assessment and treatment of lower back pain. They found that in most cases, painkilling medications and surgery are not the best treatment choices. Why not try the Yoga for Healthy Lower Back Course and see how your body responds to the benefits of gentle movement and relaxation? It has been scientifically proven to be safe, effective and suitable for all kinds of back pain.
Alison Trewhela, Yoga for Healthy Lower Backs, (Lotus Publishing 2011)
Bessel Van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score, (Penguin, 2015)
Gary Ward, What the Foot? (Soap Books, 2013)
John Sarno MD, The Mind-Body Prescription, (Hachette Book Group, 1999)
Thomas Hanna, Somatics: Reawakening The Mind’s Control Of Movement, Flexibility, And Health (Lifelong Books, 2004)