by Jim Dreaver, D.C.
our natural state, we are what Thomas Hanna, Ph.D., a pioneer in the
field of somatic education, termed healthy "somas." As somas, we are
self-aware, self-sensing, self-moving, self-changing organisms. We are
in our bodies. We can contract and relax our muscles at will. We move
with grace and ease.
People in chronic pain, however, do not function this way. Instead, they exhibit areas of tightness and rigidity in their bodies. The tightness is due to contracted muscles, caused by injury or stress. In these people, the contraction has been going on so long they are no longer aware of it. No matter how hard they try, they can't relax these tight muscles. They've lost touch with the normal sensation and feeling in them. Dr. Hanna, in his book, Somatics, called this phenomenon sensory-motor amnesia (SMA). He estimated that as many as 50% of musculoskeletal problems were due to SMA. The effects are as follows:
STIFFNESS - Caused by the hardening of the fascia and other connective tissues that require regular movement to remain soft and supple.
SORENESS AND PAIN - Due to the accumulation of lactic acid. Lactic acid and the other metabolics of muscle contraction are normally drained away via the lymph system as the muscle goes through its phases of lengthening and shortening. When the muscle is chronically tight, this does not happen.
REDUCED RANGE OF MOTION - Caused by the tight muscles affecting the movements of the joints and limbs.
SPINAL MISALIGNMENT - Chronic contraction of the muscles on either side of the spine is a major cause of persisting patterns of subluxation, or spinal misalignment. To be effective, chiropractic also needs to address the neuromuscular elements.
FATIGUE AND ENERGY LOSS - Muscles that are tight are constantly working, and are therefore using a significant amount of available energy.
SUSCEPTIBILITY TO INJURY - A body that is tight lacks resilience, the ability to yield when meeting resistance of some kind (as in a slip or fall, or when lifting or bending). If the opposing force is too great, something has to "give," and it is usually the tight individual's back, neck or one of the extremity joints.
PREMATURE AGING - What most people take for "old age" is in fact the stiffness, poor posture, low energy and impaired circulation that results from the chronically tight muscles associated with sensory-motor amnesia.
As a chiropractor, I observed that no matter how often my patients with chronically tight muscles were adjusted, stretched or massaged, their muscles tended to tighten up again. Why was this? The somatic perspective explained it: the feedback loop between the sensory-motor cortex (the seat of voluntary control) and the muscle had been broken. Involuntary, lower brain reflexes, triggered by the original injury or stress, have taken over and are telling the muscle "contract," "stiffen."
This is where Somatic Technique comes in. In 1989 I spent a brief period of time with Dr. Thomas Hanna and learned the basics of his method for releasing chronic muscle contraction and integrating mind/body awareness. Over the course of several years, I adapted what I learned from him into my own system that I use in my office and teach to other chiropractors, massage therapists and bodyworkers.
The technique works by restoring the feedback loop. It actually teaches the client how to regain control over his/her own muscles. The principle of sensory-motor feedback says that if you increase sensory awareness, you automatically get more motor control. By having the patient contract the already tight muscle even further against a resistive force applied by the doctor, new and powerful sensory input is being created. The muscle is then gradually lengthened while still under resistance.
Using this technique reawakens normal sensation and feeling, and results in an immediate softening and lengthening of the muscle, reduced pain, improved range of motion and an increased feeling of energy and well-being. This is cutting-edge work, and the results can be quite remarkable. Special somatic exercises given to the client help maintain the improvement. Somatics should be explored by anyone suffering from chronic pain and stiffnes that may be muscular in origin.
Dr. Jim Dreaver is in private practice in Sonoma County, California. He teaches somatic seminars nationwide and writes on body/mind healing. Dr. Jim Dreaver's book, The Ultimate Cure, is published by Llewellyn.
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