Neck and back pain: are conventional treatments effective?

Briefing prepared for A Current Affair, 1997

The background information that led to three appearances on ACA, and which started all our workshops!

We have been presenting workshops around the country since the exposure of the Overcome Neck & Back Pain approach in January. In this short note, I wish to present a precis of the main points of the book Overcome Neck & Back Pain, and the confirming evidence of approximately 1,500 workshop attendees since the approach was aired on A Current Affair.

Structure and function

Put simply, structure and use determine function. By this I mean that the way the various bits of the body work are governed first by their structure and second by how an individual uses his or her body. Examples: if you spend your day hunched over a computer, the levator scapulae and sub-occipital muscles are likely to hold excess tension, because they are both doing work and are holding a relatively fixed position.

Adding stress to the equation

When you add stressors to that mix (like being under pressure to hit a deadline by close of business) these muscles reach their work limit before the rest of the body and tension and pain results. Over time, the way the body uses itself changes. As another example, consider the recreational jogger: the activity requires many repetitions of small range of movement actions. Patterns of tightness (which are simply reflections of those use patterns) result. Check structure first. If one’s structure is not symmetrical, then the forces acting on the body (mainly gravity and the way it is resolved in various activities) will not be distributed as widely in the body as nature intended.

If the structure is not symmetrical, one half of key paired muscles does more work. Doing more work makes it stronger than its pair, but tighter too. We have found an inverse relationship between strength and flexibility; that is, if one of a pair of muscles is stronger then it will be tighter too. This means that it reaches its work limit before the other. The main asymmetry of interest is leg-length difference. If you include the figures from 5-9mm in addition to the 10mm or more difference figures, then around 55% of the population have a leg-length difference of 5mm or more. This can be corrected by an insert in the heel of the shoe of the short leg (usually around half the difference; we don’t want to make the body’s adaptations a problem too).

Leg-length difference

The reason leg length difference is significant is because it tips the pelvis to the side of the short leg, and the three normal curves of the spine are subtly reproduced in the plane between the shoulders, resulting is an ‘S’ shaped curve, as seen from behind. Generally this then causes additional development of the muscles on the outside of these curves (see illustration on p. 242 of the current, fourth edition). Having one leg shorter than the other can contribute to neck pain as well: when we consider the shape of the spine from behind, we may be able to see that one shoulder is carried higher than the other. This may be due to right- or left-handedness (dominant arm’s shoulder and neck muscles better developed and hence tighter) or it may be because that shoulder is carried on the outside of the induced thoracic spine curve. These causes can add together.

With respect to back pain, such asymmetry can have different outcomes: either simple muscle tension on the short-leg side, through additional development and commensurate tightness, or through compression on the long-leg side. In severe cases this can result in sciatica (pains down the back of the leg).

Comparing key functions

Now we check function. Even if no leg-length difference is found, a comparison of key functions of people suffering neck or back pain will usually reveal marked asymmetry. The key functions are: right/left lateral flexion, right/left rotation, right/left hip flexor tightness, and general lumbar muscle tightness. Should hip flexor tightness be revealed, check quadriceps tightness too. This is because some part of the quadriceps cross the front of the hip joint and mimic hip flexor action in terms of tilting the pelvis forwards; this aspect of our body also explains why the conventional sit-up can hurt the lower back.

Tension

Reducing tension in the affected muscles gives speedy relief. There are only three ways of reducing tension in muscles: using one of the psychotropic drug family members, efficient stretching exercises, and developing the capacity to relax. Valium, Librium and other similar drugs act as CNS depressants and muscle relaxants. In my view, they should be reserved for emergency use. The C–R approach to stretching is the most effective in this regard. C–R means taking the limb into the stretch position and getting used to that stretch for a while, gently contracting back in the opposite direction for a few seconds, and then on a breath out, restretching the affected part. It will always go further; and these improvements accumulate. Often a single iteration of the right stretch will give relief. Done over time they change the way the body holds tension. Conventional stretching often merely hurts. Developing relaxation habits helps the body repair itself. Most people these days hold excessive tension in different parts of the body, and we know that this is caused mainly by stress. Learning to relax helps you to sleep more deeply, and helps you be more aware of how stress creates your individual tension pattern in your waking hours.

Sign up for our occasional newsletter

Be alerted to upcoming workshops, new programs as released, and other Stretch Therapy news.