Back Pain

In 2008, a randomised controlled trial of treatments for chronic and recurrent back pain by Professor Paul Little made it official: the Alexander Technique came out on top. One-to-one lessons from registered teachers have long-term benefits for people with back pain.

The Alexander community had known this for years and had seen these results on a daily working basis. Now, both the medical profession and the general public were made aware as well. Here at long last were the hard facts: as a teacher, you could point your finger at the report, quote it in talks and lectures, and say to anyone with back pain, “give it a go, come for some lessons and the chances are it will help dramatically.” In the past, a patient asking their doctor about lessons would be met with an ill-informed shake of the head followed by advice to ‘stick to the more conventional methods’. After Professor Little’s trial, however, this dismissal of the Technique became a thing of the past.

Unfortunately, lessons in the Technique are not, as yet, provided on the N.H.S. This will eventually be resolved, but for now people have to pay for it out of their own pocket, must make the effort to find a teacher locally, and pitch up for an introductory lesson. Then, if they understand what is involved, will embark on a series of lessons over the subsequent three months, leaving behind the ‘patient’ label and becoming a pupil instead.

An experienced teacher in the Technique will know the statistics of back pain: 34 million days of work lost because of it. He or she will have heard of prolapsed discs, sciatica, lumbar spondylosis, disc-bulge, back muscle spasm, sacroiliac joint pain and so forth. They will listen to the symptoms, diagnosis and treatments the person has tried before. The key word they themselves will use is ‘prevention’. They will emphasise this aspect of the Technique. The back pain sufferer will be doing things to themselves unconsciously which contribute to the problem. They will have to understand that if any improvement is possible they must become conscious of their own individual habits. The person may not wish to hear this; to be told you are in part responsible for your back pain is difficult for many people to accept. The teacher understands this and knows they simply want to be cured or rid of it. Not just today or for a week—no, forever. Therefore, even in that first lesson it must be clear to the pupil they will be working alongside the teacher on non-doing and prevention with a view to eliminating the wrong. This method is not as most imagine trying to get things right. They will not be passive in the lesson but both engaging their brain and body as the teacher works with them. If the back pain is ever to go, a pupil must learn how to use their own thinking to make progress.

I well remember a chronic back sufferer being very skeptical about this approach. Inwardly, the person was saying, “I have a sore back, so why are we focusing on my neck and head position? And the way I’m standing is making me feel slumped, even a little bent forwards.” Yet when the person looked in the mirror, they were shocked to see themselves standing straight and not like a half-shut knife as they imagined. Their habitual stance had indeed been a leaning backwards which was putting more pressure on the lumbar area. This was decompressing the spine to such an extent that it resulted in chronic back pain. The new position, which felt unfamiliar and wrong, reduced the pain. This was a sensory breakthrough, an ‘aha!’ moment. The penny had dropped, as we say.

Once a pupil becomes skilled in applying the Technique they may suffer a setback. Fortunately they will know what has gone wrong. After some thought, observation and judgement they will be able, most of the time, to produce a satisfactory outcome. One pupil, a dentist, had a history of back pain; each time it reared up they were off work for six to eight weeks. After coming for lessons they did not have any problems until nine months later. They were in the park with their children when suddenly the old crippling pain reappeared. In that instant, fear and worry flashed before them; weeks off work, loss of income, even how were they going to get home. Then almost immediately they said, ‘No. Let me apply the Technique principles of inhibition and direction.’ They could not believe the result. The spasm of pain subsided and within a few minutes all returned to normal. For the rest of that day they paid more attention to what they were doing and were able to let the incident go.

Most pupils will be enthusiastic about the Technique when they experience the benefits, and will realise that if they had gone to the Technique while healthy, or at the first signs of pain, they would have been able to prevent their own awful situation. Prevention is better than cure.

F. M. Alexander was at pains to stress his Technique was not ‘a cure-all, a panacea, or a royal road.’ But most back pain sufferers who get relief will believe it is. And who can blame them?