Back to basics
Richard Brennan of the Alexander Technique Centre. Photo:- Mike Shaughnessy
It is the biggest single cause of sickness, disability and loss to industry with almost half the population suffering in any given year.
Yet back pain, a topic Googled by four million people worldwide each month and the subject of more than 88,000 books, continues to confound sufferers and health professionals alike.
The condition has reached epidemic proportions, according to Galway based author and Alexander Technique teacher Richard Brennan. His latest book entitled Back in Balance: Use the Alexander Technique to Combat Neck, Shoulder and Back Pain was published recently and demonstrates how this system of releasing excess tension from our bodies is helpful.
He says back pain sufferers can be put into two categories: those who have been involved in an accident of some kind and those whose back problems began for no apparent reason.
“For those in the first category, it may have been a car accident, a sports injury while playing football or rugby, riding a horse or a skiing accident, or it might have started with a fall of some kind. If you happen to be in this category it may be helpful to ask yourself the following two questions:
1. Is it possible that excessive tension was present in the muscles when the incident happened and that it was that tension that caused or contributed to the damage to your back?
2. If the body is a natural healing machine, then why is your back not healing?”
He says although he cannot be fully sure he believes it is likely that the sufferer had excessive tension in the muscles at the time of the accident and that this may also be preventing healing from taking place.
“If your back pain came on for no apparent reason, in my experience, it is again likely to be caused by years of tensing your muscles unconsciously. Then one day, for example, you may have bent down to pick up a light object, such as a book or newspaper, and your back went into a spasm of pain.
“Either way it is the excessive tension in your muscles that is likely to have caused and is still causing your back pain and this tension needs to be dealt with if you are ever to be rid of the pain.”
Mr Brennan, who runs Ireland’s only teacher training college for the Alexander Technique, in Moycullen, suffered from “excruciating” back pain and sciatica for years. Standing, sitting, walking, even sleeping was painful for him. His father was a doctor and they explored every avenue to find a solution. In the end Richard discovered the Alexander Technique and became free of back pain. So impressed was he with the system that he went on to teach it and has been helping people with back and neck pain for the past 24 years.
He describes the technique as a “completely different approach”. “The basic premise of the Alexander Technique is that the body is very intelligent and knows exactly what is needed to reduce pain. The only trouble is that without realising it we are constantly putting huge pressure on the nerves, muscles and joints through the way we stand, sit and move and this pressure prevents healing taking place.”
He says the Alexander Technique is not a “quick fix” and it takes time to learn as it is a re-education of the muscular system which is often pulling us out of shape.
“In fact, it pulls our bones and joints together with so much force that it can literally drive the intervertebral discs out of place and on to the nearby nerves. I sometimes say to my pupils that if you did to someone else’s back what you are doing to your own you would be arrested for grevious bodily harm!”
He stresses that pain is a warning sign - our bodies telling us that something is wrong. From his personal experience as well as through his teaching he believes that posture and the way we perform actions is the fundamental cause of back problems for most people.
“Why do so many adults have detrimental postural habits, such as rounded shoulders or an overarched back when nearly all children under five or six have perfect posture? The answer can be found in our sitting habits.”
Many of us spend as much as 75 per cent of our waking lives sitting on chairs, he says.
“In my experience most of the chairs we are sitting on are not synchronised with how our body is designed and this is a major factor in causing poor posture subsequently leading to back pain. It is interesting to realise that back pain and neck problems have reached epidemic proportions in all countries where sitting has become the norm. Chairs and desks are the most common ergonomic factors that have encouraged poor posture.”
Many people do not realise that the chairs they sit on can actually shape the form of the human body so severely that some people are bordering on deformity, he states.
Driving for long distances or spending long hours at a computer, sitting on badly designed car seats and office chairs can practically cripple us yet we rarely blame the chair - we blame our backs.
We all have personal postural habits when sitting, standing and moving, he explains. These habits feel totally normal yet may be directly causing us pain. Without realising it we often use our spines in ways in which they were not intended.
“A good example of this is the very common habit of bending our spines instead of our ankles, knees and hip joints - many people with back pain do this thousands of times before they even notice stiffness, tension or pain which is why we do not immediately connect the way that we are moving with the pain we are experiencing. In the same way, the clutch in a car will only wear out after riding it over and over again.”
Another common unhealthy habit is standing or sitting up straight while we pull our shoulders backwards. We were often encouraged to do this by parents or teachers to counter the habit of slumping. However, Richard Brennan says this way of sitting or standing causes our muscles to be very tense and gives us the idea that we should have a lumbar curve in our spine at all times, which is incorrect.
Different emotions or thoughts can affect muscular tension so if we feel angry, irritable or stressed we will probably be tensing our muscles as well. One of the biggest emotional factors that contributes to back pain is stress, he outlines.
“Have a look at people rushing to get to their destination. Typically their shoulders will be hunched up and pulled forward, their heads will be pulled back and down on to their spines and their backs will be arched. Obviously this can contribute directly to back pain so a vital step in preventing future back pain is to begin to give ourselves more time in everything we do. Realising that life is not one long emergency really helps to reduce muscle tension.”