Written by Judith C. Stern, this article first appeared in NASTAT (The North American Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique) News, Issue No. 30 (Autumn 1995).
It was the last week in October 1986, when the phone rang in my office. The caller was typical, a man who introduced himself as a chronic back pain sufferer of 20 years, asking for my help.
I am an Alexander teacher. I am also a physical therapist. This gentleman was calling me because his doctor had heard from other patients that I practiced “an unusual form” of physical therapy which he didn’t understand, but which seemed to be successful. The man stated that he was at the “end of his rope.” Plagued with pain for over 20 years he was willing to try “anything.”
His name was Tom and his medical, social and emotional histories were remarkable. He was injured in 1969 lifting a heavy object. The injury seemed minor but pain persisted, and over the course of the last 20 years, he had had four surgeries in a vain attempt to alleviate the pain. Acupuncture, hypnosis and other alternatives were tried. Nothing had helped the pain. Tom was 45 years old, married and the father of a 10 year old son. He worked for IBM and led an incredibly productive life despite his limitations. His limitations however were enormous. Tom could drive no longer than the short distance to and from work. He worked at a standing desk, (sitting was impossible due to pain.) And he enjoyed no extra-curricular activities. His daily pain was so great he would not sit with his family for dinner. He managed his pain with analgesics which barely got him through his days. He was miserable and was looking for help to improve his lifestyle. Basically he couldn’t stand for long periods of time, could sit for only short periods of time and had great difficulty walking. He described life as “living in a tunnel in which I push to get through the necessary work and then collapse.”
After meeting Tom at my office the following day, we began Alexander lessons. I explained that the Technique was a mind-body approach to the problem of chronic back pain. Tom was a willing student, highly motivated and open to a new way of thinking about what was causing his pain. “Thinking” was the key word. Tom began taking 2 lessons a week along with one physical therapy session to guide him gently into increased physical activity. The lessons were remarkable. Tom had spent the last 20 years divorcing his mind from his body to cope with his daily pain. His skill at mind-body separation was excellent. Twenty years of suffering had made him an expert at blocking his pain experience. Now I was asking him to focus on this connection but in the opposite way! I wanted Tom to be acutely aware of his discomfort and to use it as a feed-back mechanism to be more effective with the Technique. It worked. Tom became facile at reconnecting his mind to his body, as I taught him what it was like to sit, stand, and move in a different way.
Tom studied the Alexander Technique for almost a year. Some of his significant milestones during that time were:
1. AT THREE WEEKS:
The pain in one leg practically disappeared
Tom sat with comfort for most of Thanksgiving dinner with his family
2. AT THREE MONTHS:
Tom no longer took any pain medication
He returned to work on a regular basis (sitting at a desk)
He no longer wore a back brace
He was walking 2 miles daily pain free.
3. AT FOUR MONTHS
Pain was no longer the central theme of his life.
He could control his pain by practicing the principles of the Alexander Technique.
4. AT NINE MONTHS
He was coaching his son’s little league team
He was experiencing life outside “the tunnel.”
The interaction between mind and body is a recognized medical phenomenon which has been applied to alter heart rate, blood pressure, skin temperature and brain waves. The Alexander Technique utilizes this same mind-body connection to achieve improved conscious control of the neuromusculoskeletal system. If back pain persists without objective physical findings, one may assume the pain is a result of poor postural habits. Exploring these postural habits and increasing one’s conscious awareness of how these habits create musculoskeletal imbalance opens the door to controlling back pain.
The Alexander Technique is a “thought process” which when applied by people like Tom to control musculoskeletal tension can bring significant pain control and/or pain relief. TheTechnique is a relatively untapped resource for the medical community and
specifically for suffers of chronic pain syndrome.