A Way Back from Painful Habit: Rolfing Structural Integration for Sensory Motor Amnesia
Jun 06, 2016 03:36PM
● By Mikel Bensend
A mystery surrounds certain kinds of pain and functional conditions. These are conditions of so-called undiagnosable pain: pain that appears mysteriously one day, pain that moves from place to place, and pain that comes and goes. We may try to refine or increase our functional abilities in activities and we just can’t get over our plateaus. What is happening in these situations?
Sensory-motor amnesia is the inability to sense and move muscles that are stuck in a chronically contracted state. If we sprain our ankle, what do we do in the days that follow to avoid the pain? We shift our weight to the other leg and limp. Our postural and movement patterns shift. This weight shift can affect function and structure in a number of ways. The good leg takes over the job of support while the injured leg contracts to keep the weight off of the ankle. Compression and bracing build through the joints of the good leg while tension from holding builds through the joints of the injured leg. In the process, a pronounced difference can develop in the rotations of the pelvis via the sacrum and the sacroiliac joint, giving the lower body a visible twist. This imbalance becomes absorbed in the fascial pathways and deep hip flexor muscles, creating limitations of movement in the lumbar spine and low back pain.
Is three to six weeks of healing time enough for a new movement habit to form? Three to six days? Three to six hours? The average person takes 6,000 steps per day. How many steps while trying to avoid discomfort does it take to establish a new pattern? Muscles with an existing tensional habit are some of the first to tighten under stress and the last to relax. A few years later, which muscles have become chronically tight? By that time, we have forgotten all about the original injury and are completely unaware that at one point we tightened ourselves up and are still holding that tension.
The sensory-motor amnesia term refers to states of muscular activity that we no longer sense because they have become so habitual. We are no longer aware of the action of holding tension. That’s the amnesia. People are also often “amnesic” about the injury that led to their habitual tension until asked to recall injuries they have had in their lives. Suddenly, the connection between their pain and the old injury becomes clear.
Think of the variety of possible injuries—such as common whiplash issues—and you have a possible explanation for chronic muscular tension and pain anywhere in the body. To that, add the various ways we condition ourselves to hold muscles tight, including overuse injuries, improper athletic training and poor work habits.
Rolfing is a Way Out of Trouble
One of the most troublesome aspects of sensory-motor amnesia is that one is left with a sense of trouble in the body —such as pain and/or stiffness—but no sense of the muscular action that is causing it. The sense of how certain muscles work to cause certain movements is diminished or lost. Since we can’t pinpoint the cause, we’re unable to pin responsibility on a specific area. It becomes a predicament with no clear way out.
The way of out of sensory-motor amnesia can be learned and made more available when combined with techniques such as Rolfing structural integration. One way is to relearn how to sense the muscular actions underlying pain and how to control those muscular actions. Muscular control comes from learning to control movement; movement control comes from learning how to access pre-movement.
Most therapeutic approaches involve someone doing something to or for us. The popular phrase is “being worked on.” However, the habitual tensing that develops after injury or under long-term stress has an interesting characteristic; the tensing often returns after therapy or never departs, leaving us with that same feeling of guarding or holding. Rolfing structural integration approaches the body from a deeply holistic perspective; practitioners try to access and release traumas that have become deeply held patterns in the body in sessions that focus on movement explorations and refinement.
When Rolfing practitioners help their clients start exploring ways out of the habitual patterns, the neuromuscular system begins to establish new and more functional patterns. These are not necessarily perfect, but improved. Form follows function and function follows form. With committed exploration, these patterns are repeatedly modified and the newly established movement patterns become more fluid and functional with reduced chronic pain. Soft tissue therapy on specific areas of the connective tissue structure balances and increases the effectiveness of this movement work and vise versa. Living in our bodies becomes more painless, enjoyable and even pleasant.
Mikel Bensend is a certified advanced Rolfer and principal at Westport Rolfing, with offices in Westport and Fairfield. Connect with him at 203-216-9770, [email protected] or visit WestportRolfing.com. See ad, page 9.