A Perpetuating Factor for Lower Back Pain

Stress and Lower Back Pain

The extremely powerful relationship between stress and lower back pain cannot be overstated.

Surely you’ve felt that less tension would be a very welcome thing, right?

But what is the actual impact on the body? And more specifically, what role does this force play in causing lower back pain?

One of the central effects, whether it’s anxiety at the office or tension at home, can be chronic contraction of the musculature of the body.

The body responds to these forces with a hormonal response called “fight or flight” in which the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system becomes active.

When this type of stimulus is present, the body instinctively readies itself for action. Adrenaline surges into the blood and the muscles prepare themselves for “fight or flight.”

The Sustained Impact of Fight or Flight

The problem, however, is not with the initial surge of adrenaline or the initial contraction of the muscles. The problem occurs when the muscular contraction prompted by stress does not stop, even after the stressful incident has passed.

In other words, your boss may have stopped yelling, or the baby may have stopped crying, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the muscles in your back (or elsewhere) have stopped contracting.

Chronic muscular contraction is painful because once glycogen (the fuel of muscles) is burned up from a muscle’s constant use, acids build up around the nerve receptors.

Also, the muscle becomes deeply fatigued, and no fresh blood, oxygen, or nutrients can get to it. The muscle becomes literally starved, while the demand of work is still being placed upon it. The result is pain.

But why is it that sometimes the muscles don’t relax after the stressful situation has passed?

Sensory-Motor Amnesia

In his groundbreaking work, Somatics: Reawakening the Mind’s Control of Movement, Flexibility and Health, Thomas Hanna provides some concrete answers and describes his work, Hanna Somatic Education. Hanna was a student of Moshe Feldenkrais, one of the preeminent pioneers in the 20th Century of movement reeducation.

In Somatics, Hanna builds on his teacher’s work and describes a phenomenon that addresses why muscles sometimes don’t relax on their own. The phenomenon is called sensory-motor amnesia.

In a nutshell, sensory-motor amnesia is what can result when the muscular system and the nervous system get stuck in a feedback loop in which the muscles remain chronically contracted.

It’s called a feedback loop because the muscles and the nervous system keep sending messages back and forth to each other. “You want to contract? Okay I’ll contract!” This becomes the constant back and forth message. The “amnesia” actually occurs in the brain itself, the neocortex, which is the seat of motor control in the body.

What, then, can lift the “amnesia,” and reawaken the mind’s control?

Somatic Movement

Since the “amnesia” is in the brain itself, there must be a reconnection made among the brain, the nervous system, and the muscles. One method for accomplishing this is to reassert conscious control over the muscles. We do this using simple Somatic movements.

These movements are not big, broad exercises. Nor are they back stretches per se. The purpose of these movements is to reawaken and re-educate your body and, to that end, the movements are executed very, very, VERY slowly.

Slow movement allows the synapses to comprehend the re-learning. Fast movement runs roughshod over the re-learning process. Also, the movements are done within one’s comfort zone.

The common and unfortunate catch phrase — no pain, no gain — has NO PLACE in the world of movement re-education, which is the world of Somatic movement.

For relieving lower back pain, Thomas Hanna’s book, Somatics: Reawakening the Mind’s Control of Movement, Flexibility, and Health, is one of the most important and useful books ever published on the subject.

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Anatomy Images Courtesy of BIODIGITAL

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Stephen O'Dwyer, cnmt

Neuromuscular Therapist & Pain Relief Researcher

Stephen O'Dwyer, CNMT


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