Does Strengthening Your Core & Stretching Really Ease Back Pain?Heidi Hadley
For many years it has been a common belief that strengthening the core muscles and stretching helps to ease back pain. In today’s blog we are going to consider this and see if old beliefs are still relevant or if the recent scientific research is highlighting something very different.
Creatures of habit
If you are a regular reader of my blogs you will know I often refer to actions of the human race as “creatures of habit.” We all have our favourite rituals and spend the majority of our time living subconsciously or on autopilot, doing the same activities everyday, without a second thought. Whilst we live subconsciously, the sensors within our muscles are recording the repetitive actions created. For many, over time, our brain will start to notice that we may live a sedentary lifestyle. If we sit for hours at a computer or stand up leaning forward, the sensors within the muscles relay this information back to our brain. It tells our brain that we may only use 60% of our muscle range. So as a result, our brain tells the muscle sensors to tighten the other 40%. This 40% of contracted muscle may have developed in areas such as our abdominals, chest, shoulders and neck muscles. If these muscles are regularly tight, our brain thinks it only has 60% use of the muscle. Overtime our brain has become conditioned and knows how to tighten and contract, however it has forgotten how to relax.
If we add a few extra factors to this, such as stress, anxiety, fear, negative thoughts, limiting beliefs, not allowing time for yourself, unable set boundaries and say no, these psychological factors will also create a tightening within our muscles, without us even noticing until one day we suffer with agonising pain. Also other factors may include sport and exercise. Sport and exercise are really important for our health and wellbeing, however once again our muscles will gradually get tighter and tighter with strength work. Remember, our brain knows how to tighten and contract muscles but it has forgotten what it is like to soften the belly of our muscles and to let go of all that tension. So before we know it, we are walking around very rigid without fluidity in our movements.
Over time the rigid, tense muscles start to cause back pain and we feel tired as a result. This is no surprise though. Imagine if we tensed our biceps all day, we would soon get tired and the muscles and joints around our shoulders, elbows and wrists would get very sore. Likewise, tense, tight muscles through our back, waist, abdominals, intercostals, chest, shoulders, neck, hip flexors and glutes all become very tight and contracted due a catalogue of events which I mentioned in the previous paragraphs. So what is the common suggestions when you consult a health care practitioner?
Advice - is it up to date with medical scientific research?
Two common beliefs that appear to still be apparent in certain areas of health are to stretch muscles and also strengthen the core for back pain. Let us consider these two approaches.
Thanks to neuroscience research, we now have a deeper understanding of how the brain communicates to the muscles. We understand that the sensors within our muscles are programmed by an area within our brain known as the sensory motor cortex. This is also known as the brain map. So incoming sensory information from the muscles tells this portion of the brain how much of the muscles are being contracted. Over a relatively short period of time, the brain recalibrates. If the muscles always seems to stay the same length, the sensors within this region will alter and call the a new baseline line for the muscle as 0%. As I mentioned earlier, this may actually be 40% contracted, meaning it is a false reading.
In order to soften the belly of our muscles, we have to create a 3 step process known as PANDICULATION to reset the muscle length. This 3 step process includes muscle techniques to actually ‘jump start’ or ‘wake up’ that portion of the brain map which has gone into ‘autopilot.’ Once we have our brain’s attention, we can start to actively lengthen the muscle, allowing our brain to learn how to fully release. Then when we get to the end of our natural movement, we fully relax and allow the synpases within our brain to absorb this information. Repeating this movement teaches the sensors within the muscles to actually return back to the correct 0% (or close to). This results in greater use of our muscles, feeling less tired because the muscle don’t have to contract all the time and strength improves greatly.
However, there are many still prescribing stretching for tight muscles. As much as stretching may help to a certain degree, the belly of the muscle continues to be held contracted by sensors within the muscles, getting the commands from the brain. Until we actually teach our brain how to fully release the belly of the muscle, we will only continue to stretch either side of the belly. Stretching a tight muscle often results in cramping or spasm because the sensors within the muscles notice that we are trying to force the muscle beyond where the brain thinks 0% is. As a result a spinal cord reflex kicks in known as the stretch reflex. This causes the muscle to cramp and spasm, protecting it from over stretching and tearing the muscles. Sometimes people feel hip joint and back pain following a stretch session and think this is a good thing! They often comment that they are aching, so they must have had a good stretch session. However, this reveals that the muscle clearly went into spasm and cramped often, as a result of the stretch reflex being stimulated to protect the muscle. This often means that the belly of the muscle may have actually contracted a few percentage tighter than before!
Another common belief is that if you have a bad back, you have a weak core and need to strengthen it. However research from Professor Peter O’Sullivan from Curtin University, Western Australia has revealed that strengthening the core for back pain creates a further tightening along the posterior wall of the abdomen, causing pressure on the lower back muscles. It actually amplifies back pain. The old thoughts about strengthening and bracing the core for manual handling has also been shown to increase back pain and as a result there is now a major re-think about manual handling procedures around the world. Once again this is thanks to the ongoing research happening with pain scientists in Australia.
As a Clinical Somatic Educator, it is great to see that the research is now supporting what we have all been saying for decades. Thankfully the research is starting to consider the brain because for so many years, people have been treated mechanically, often working on one or two muscles in a clinical setting. However when I educate Health professionals around Australia with Somatic Movement, I often ask them to think somatically or globally. A tight hamstring works with other muscles and when it tightens, the brain has created that response for a reason. Why has it tightened? I ask them to consider the fact that our brain patterns muscle tension in certain ways and we need to think further than just treating the hamstring, which in most cases is a symptom of a root cause else where….and its not due to a weak core!!!
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Check out the video below of Professor Peter O’Sullivan as he highlights slow mindful movement and breathing are the future for back pain, as we move away from old beliefs that we have to strengten muscles for back pain.
Moving forward with Mindful Somatic Movement
As a Clinical Somatic Educator, my role is to facilitate you back to good health. I am not here to ‘fix’ you. The notion of ‘fixing’ a person creates an authoriarian mindset which means the person has taken ownership away and placed it on someone else to sort out their issues. With Somatic Movement, I am encouraging you to sense what your muscles feel like from the inside and after pandiculating, noticing the contrast. This helps your brain start to increase its awareness to your entire musculature (and so much more). At times due to living in the hamster wheel of life, we can become very cerebral, living in our heads and not actually noticing what is happening within our body. We miss vital cues such as our breath rate, our rapid heart rate, our posture, our digestive function plus many more subtle cues.
Somatic Movement changes that completely. Once you realise it has to come from your intention to feel better, live with less pain, greater movement and an improved posture (which affects everything), that is when you see the improvements. I cannot go to the gym and get fit for you, likewise I cannot do somatic movement and reduce your pain. I can teach you the knowledge and skills, but the effort must come from you. Once you start working your amazing brain with somatic movement, the changes happen very quickly.
Check out the before and after photo of this cyclist who practised somatics every day for 5 days, feeling the improvement in her posture and reduction in muscle tension and pain.
I know how busy life can be and we all work different times nowadays. Its no longer the 9am-5pm Monday to Friday schedule. Shift work is ever increasing. If you work in hospitality, your free time is very different. That is why back in 2016 I created The Total Somatics Approach to Health & Wellness Online Program at www.TotalSomatics.com. Since then, I have added so much more material to assist you with your health and wellness intentions. I am constantly adding new material and I have even more exciting goodies to reveal very soon!! Total Somatics has become a very popular option for people around the world because it can be accessed when it suits you and all the material has been broken down in easily digested pieces. I have ensured you get the main points without the jargon or long winded explanations. From feedback, I am constantly changing, refining or adding to the program. I am here to serve you and help you get the best out of the program so you can enjoy your life with reduce pain, improved posture and increased mobility.
If you would like to learn more about Somatics, check out my FREE ebook, by CLICKING HERE.
I look forward to teaching you the very best and latest skills to help ease pain, improve posture, increase mobility and develop mindfulness with The Total Somatics Approach to Health & Wellness Online Program at www.TotalSomatics.com.
Heidi Hadley xx