The Alexander Technique and Chronic Pain

The Alexander Technique is not a treatment, more a way of living, and learning it has been shown in NHS trials to help chronic pain. Best known now for helping with lower back pain, it is worth considering for anyone suffering with chronic pain.

What is it?

We all develop habits and how we move is part of this. After illness or accident we adapt to protect ourselves, but these protective habits may stay with us for years. If we are in pain, especially chronic pain, the automatic reaction is to tense against it, but this may not always be the most effective response. Tight muscles can themselves be painful – think of cramp. More often the protective tension we generate merely moves the stress a little further around the body and causes awkward movement elsewhere. Over time, this can cause damage and more pain. The mind also slowly adapts its pictures of “what is me” and “how I move” to normalise the tension and awkwardness, so that it becomes harder to recognise its negative effects.     

Lessons in the Alexander Technique teach you to become more aware of your whole body, to recognise your patterns of movement and the unnecessary muscle tension these cause, then unlearn and avoid them so you allow yourself to move in a more natural and unstressed way. Relearning how to work with your body reduces effort so you may find you can achieve more with what energy and strength you have. It also gives a real sense of unity with your body and this strengthening sense of self can itself feel very beneficial if you have spent a long time fighting pain. Learning the Alexander technique has been shown in a recent small study to improve the management of pain, improve quality of life and reduce the level of painkillers required in over half of those taking part at an NHS pain clinic.

Let's be honest – the Technique isn't a magic bullet. It can't take away illness or physical damage. It also takes time and some persistence to build the ideas into your life. It may make you more tired to begin with as your body re-adjusts. It can even trigger new pains in the short term, as muscles you have not been using take some of the effort. Occasionally where someone has been holding emotional trauma at bay by locking it in, undoing tense muscles also releases fear or unpleasant memories, though in my experience the body seems only to let go at a pace you can cope with. 

Also because it is education, not a treatment, the Alexander Technique is not generally available via the NHS or private health insurance - lessons cost money, though many teachers have special offers and may also offer reductions in some circumstances. Some also do introductory group workshops which are a cheaper way to try it and see if you like it.

But the upside is it is something you learn, so you then have with you always. Once you know you want to learn, most people take one-to-one lessons. These can be adapted to suit the pupil's interests and physical ability, whatever that is at the time. A lot of teachers came to the Technique themselves because of accident or illness and understand both what it can offer you and also have some insight into what you are going through. 

What happens in a lesson?

In a lesson I use my hands to help the pupil achieve optimal balance and then guide them through simple movements such as lying down, sitting or walking, depending on their capabilities. Although we sometimes use a table that's like a massage couch there is no manipulation. I work as much with their thinking as their body to help the pupil unlearn habits and let go of tension. Together we create as much freedom of movement as possible, releasing muscles and easing tense joints. 

This “undoing” has effects on many levels. Some people find they sleep better or cope better with stressful situations. Often posture improves, assisting stability, breathing and digestion as well as  lightening the load on joints and muscles. They feel more in control and that in turn affects how they feel generally and how they cope with pain. 

Lessons are usually 45 minutes to an hour long, at a cost comparable to complementary therapy sessions. A question I am often asked is 'how many lessons will I need?' I always recommend trying a single lesson first to see how you get on with the Technique (and with the teacher!) before thinking of taking a set of lessons – beyond that I recommend a set of six lessons as a foundation and then see how you are progressing, but some teachers believe more are needed  to really find the benefits. The factors to think of are how long have you been developing the problems you need to resolve, and how committed are you likely to be to change habits that have become a part of your sense of yourself? Not everyone takes to the Technique –  its emphasis on undoing and non-doing goes very much against the grain of a goal-driven society. If you find this, do try another teacher rather than give up. They may be able to lead you through the Technique in a slightly different way that makes more sense to you. The main thing is that it is really up to you to choose how far and how fast you go. Once learned, Alexander skills will benefit you for life.

How do I find out more?

If this sounds interesting there is a lot of information out there on the web as well as on my own site.  STAT (Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique) is the oldest and largest professional society. It has loads of information and a UK 'find-your-local-teacher' tool on its website. STAT teaching members have completed three years' full-time specialist training to qualify,  and are insured and CRB checked. It is also worth noting smaller groups such as ATE and PAAT, whose members have similar levels of training and a presence in some parts of the UK. There are national societies in many other countries too - STAT lists affiliated overseas societies on its site while ATE is based in Australia but has teachers internationally and is setting up some national groups – there will be a UK version at ukate.org shortly. Also googling 'Alexander Technique' plus your area may find local teachers' websites. Do check on their qualifications and have a chat with them before deciding. We all teach with our own style - learning the Technique should be fun and it is important to find a teacher you trust.

If you're unsure I am happy to try and answer your queries - please do contact me via my website below.  

Tricia Kelly MSTAT, MATE

Awareness in Balance

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