The Alexander Technique and Chronic Pain

In order to function well, we need a certain amount of muscle tone.  Unfortunately, though, most of us have more tension than we need, because of the stress of daily living.  This tension interferes with the natural alignment of our head, neck and spine – and that’s one reason why so many of us are in pain or have difficulty with activities.

Through private lessons in the Alexander Technique, you can become aware of your unnecessary muscle tension and reduce it.  At the same time, you can rediscover the natural alignment that we all had as children.  This alignment will give you better balance, coordination, and ease of movement.

 

There are two kinds of chronic pain that the Alexander Technique addresses.  First of all, it helps us with pain that’s related to something we’re doing.  For example, some of us experience pain because we have to sit for long hours at the computer, work with heavy objects or heavy machinery, or spend long hours on our feet.  As a result, we may develop conditions such as repetitive motion syndrome, carpal tunnel syndrome, sciatica or tension headaches.  Sports injuries and injuries suffered by performing artists also fall into this category.

There’s an important reason why these pain syndromes and injuries happen.  It turns out we all have a natural alignment of our head, neck and spine that we were born with.  This alignment worked well when we were young.  But then as we get older, and have to deal with those stressful situations I mentioned, we gradually build up areas of excess muscle tension.  These patterns of tension eventually throw off our alignment and put extra pressure on our joints and nerves.  That’s one reason why many of us have pain.

The good news is that, if you have one of the pain conditions I just mentioned, the Alexander Technique can help you.  You can learn how to reduce your underlying muscle tension.  At the same time, you can realign your head, neck and spine.  As a result, your pain will diminish.

Unfortunately, there are some kinds of pain that the Alexander Technique doesn’t address directly.  For example, if you have pain as a result of arthritis or degenerative disc disease, the Alexander Technique won’t eliminate it.  That’s because it’s not related to extra muscle tension, or to something you’re doing.

Still, the Alexander Technique can help you deal more effectively with the pain you have from a condition like arthritis.  Most people respond to pain by getting tense or overcompensating.  That’s an understandable response, but it may actually make your pain worse.  The technique can help you change your approach to your pain, so you don’t unconsciously exacerbate it.

 

Here’s an example of a student I worked with who had chronic pain.  His name was Michael and he was a retired businessman in his seventies.  He came to me complaining of pain in both knees.  He also had a painful hip.  After he’d taken some Alexander lessons, his knee pain improved dramatically – to the point where he could put away his knee braces and take much less pain medication.

Michael discovered that his knee pain had an indirect cause: a subtle shortening of his spine.  Of course, he hadn’t been shortening his spine on purpose.  The pattern had developed over many years as a result of muscle tension that he hadn’t been aware of.  Eventually, the shortening had begun to put extra pressure on his knees.  In addition, he had extra tension in his thighs and calves, which affected his knees.

During his lessons, Michael learned how to realign his head, neck and spine.  As part of that process, he learned how to lengthen his spine upwards.  That took much of the pressure off his knees.  At the same time, he learned how to subtract the extra tension in his legs.  He was especially pleased when he was able to go to a wedding, which involved sitting, standing and moving around for several hours, and he experienced no knee pain afterwards.

On the other hand, the lessons did not eliminate the pain in Michael’s hip.  Eventually, he went to see a doctor and was told he had arthritis in that joint.  Soon afterwards, he underwent hip replacement surgery, which eliminated the pain and increased the range of movement in that joint.

 

Here’s another example of a student who came for Alexander lessons because he had chronic pain.  I’ll call him Paul.  Paul is a doctor in his mid-50’s.  As a child, Paul suffered from a condition known as aseptic necrosis, which affected his left hip joint.  He had to be in a full-body cast for several months.  A number of years later, he began to have arthritis in that hip.  When he first came to see me, he was suffering from chronic pain in that hip and his left leg was slightly shorter than his right leg.

During his Alexander lessons, Paul went through three stages.  Early on, he discovered that he had a lot of background muscle tension surrounding his left hip, and throughout his whole body.  There was an important reason for that tension.  For years, he’d been compensating, both consciously and unconsciously, for the pain.  Once again, that’s an understandable response, one that most people in pain have.  For example, in Paul’s case, he would favor his left leg and put extra weight on his right leg.  As you might imagine, that led to extra tension in his right leg.

During his early lessons, Paul learned how to reduce the tension in his right leg, as well as the background tension throughout his body.  As a result, his pain decreased dramatically.  So it turned out that some of his pain was related to that background tension, and not to the arthritis.

Unfortunately, during the second phase of Paul’s lessons, the arthritis in his left hip got much worse, and the pain increased dramatically.  As a result, some of his tension came back.  Finally, he decided to have hip replacement surgery.  The good news is that the surgery completely eliminated the pain in his hip.

For a period of time after his surgery, Paul still had some excess tension.  That was because, when he would go from sitting to standing or carry out other movements, he was still expecting to have pain, and he would get tense as a result.  Gradually, though, he got used to having no pain and the tension went away.

As of today, Paul is pain-free, and he has less muscle tension and better alignment than he’s had since he was a young child.

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