By Dr. Mercola
Back pain is incredibly common, affecting about 80 percent of U.S. adults at some point in their lives. At any given time, it's estimated that 31 million Americans are experiencing low back pain, which is also the leading cause of disability worldwide.1
While serious underlying conditions, such as fractures, infection, arthritis and cancer, can cause chronic pain in your back, most back pain is the result of mechanical problems that have resulted from years of repetitive movements, poor posture and other physical (and even emotional) stresses.
Americans spend at least $50 billion every year on back pain, including on medications, surgery and other treatments that often do not relieve the pain.2 An alternative therapy that's been growing in popularity, and for good reason, is the Alexander Technique.
It's got a devoted following of people because it's remarkably simple and non-invasive — and, most importantly, it works.
What Is the Alexander Technique?
The Alexander Technique is a method that teaches you how to recognize inefficient and harmful habits of movement that are likely contributing to your back pain. Once you recognize them, you'll learn how to move in a healthy, easy way that relieves tension in your body and promotes ease of movement.
The method was created by F.M. Alexander (1869-1955), an Australian actor who suffered from chronic laryngitis that was hindering his performances. Conventional medicine couldn't help him, but he recognized extra tension in his neck and elsewhere in his body that was creating problems.
He developed ways to speak and move with greater ease, which led to significant health improvements. They were so dramatic that others began to ask him about his methods, and he began teaching the techniques to others.
According to New York-based movement professional and certified teacher of the Alexander Technique, Joan Arnold:3
"We all have unconscious movement habits. Without realizing it, we put undue pressure on ourselves. We use more force than we need to lift a coffee pot or a weight bar. We slouch as we sit, unaware that our way of doing things gives our bodies a certain look.
We blame body problems on activities — carpal tunnel syndrome on computer work, tennis elbow on tennis. But often it is how we do something that creates the problem, not the activity itself.
An Alexander Technique teacher helps you see what in your movement style contributes to your recurring difficulties — whether it's a bad back, neck and shoulder pain, restricted breathing, perpetual exhaustion or limitations in performing a task or sport.
Analyzing your whole movement pattern — not just your symptom — the teacher alerts you to habits of compression in your characteristic way of sitting, standing and walking. He or she then guides you — with words and a gentle, encouraging touch — to move in a freer, more integrated way."
The Alexander Technique Relieves Persistent Back Pain
Many people have been helped by the Alexander Technique, but it's not only anecdotal reports that back up its merit. In 2008, a study was published in BMJ that evaluated therapeutic massage, exercise and lessons in the Alexander Technique for treating persistent back pain.4
After one year, those who received massage had no improvement, while those who received 24 Alexander lessons had significant improvement, going from 21 days of pain to about three.5 Those who received six Alexander lessons also showed improvement, and BMJ reported:6
" … [T]he Alexander technique performed better than exercise on the full range of outcomes. A combination of six lessons in Alexander technique lessons followed by exercise was the most effective and cost effective option."
Separate research published in the journal Family Practice also found the Alexander Technique to be effective in managing low back pain.7
In this case, patients who had learned the Alexander Technique felt they could manage back pain even better than those who had received an exercise prescription. The researchers explained:8
"Whereas many obstacles to exercising were reported, few barriers to learning the Alexander Technique were described, since it 'made sense,' could be practiced while carrying out everyday activities or relaxing, and the teachers provided personal advice and support."
The Alexander Technique for Chronic Neck Pain and Other Health Conditions
In people suffering from neck pain lasting at least three months, along with associated disability, receiving 14 Alexander lessons led to significant reductions in neck pain and associated disability compared with usual care.9 The improvements in pain were still there six and 12 months later.
Lead study author Hugh MacPherson, Ph.D., a senior research fellow at the University of York in the United Kingdom, told NPR, "Most trials looking at neck pain show the benefits wear off after a time, but we were finding these sustaining benefits."10 This may be because the Alexander Technique teaches patients self-care approaches that they can use for the rest of their lives. Once you've learned how to adjust your posture and body movements to a more natural state, you can practice it for a lifetime.
Meanwhile, research published in the International Journal of Clinical Practice added even more support of the Alexander Technique for chronic back pain, noting that "strong evidence exists" for its effectiveness in "long-term reductions in back pain and incapacity caused by chronic back pain."11
Beyond this, the study found moderate evidence that Alexander Technique lessons may lead to improvements in disability related to Parkinson's disease. Further, the researchers noted the technique shows promise for treating a wide range of other health-related conditions:12
"Preliminary evidence suggests that Alexander Technique lessons may lead to improvements in balance skills in the elderly, in general chronic pain, posture, respiratory function and stuttering … "
Focus Is Placed on the Relationship Between Your Head and Neck
The Alexander Technique places emphasis on the way you hold and position your head in relation to your neck. A foundation of the program is that a compressed head/spine relationship will have ramifications for the rest of your body. The goal is to free this relationship so your head balances lightly at the top of your spine and your neck muscles do not overwork. Arnold continued:13
"Our neuromuscular system is designed to work in concert with gravity. Delicate poise of the head sparks the body's anti-gravity response: a natural oppositional force in the torso that easily guides us upward and invites the spine to lengthen, rather than compress, as we move.
Instead of slouching or holding ourselves in a rigid posture, we can learn to mobilize this support system and use it wherever we go — in the car, at the computer [or] in the gym.
... With the Alexander Technique, you come to understand much more about how your body works, and how to make it work for you. You can tap more of your internal resources, and begin on a path to enhancing your comfort and pleasure in all your activities."
What Does an Alexander Technique Lesson Consist Of?
What should you expect if you're considering taking lessons in the Alexander Technique? The process involves teaching you to release tension and harmful habits that may be contributing to your pain. A certified Alexander Technique teacher will first observe your posture and movement patterns. She will place her hands on your neck, shoulders and elsewhere on your body to gather more information about your patterns of movement.
She may gently guide you to help you release muscular tension, but there are no aggressive manipulations performed. A typical lesson lasts 30 to 45 minutes, and most students take between 20 and 40 lessons over a period of a few months.14 In the beginning, you may take two or three lessons a week as you learn the new approach to movement. As you progress and are able to carry on the new ease of movement to your daily activities, the lessons become more widely spaced.
Re-Learning the Way You Moved as a Young Child
It's possible to learn the Alexander Technique on your own, but working with a certified teacher is recommended initially. If a teacher is not available in your area, you may be able to conduct some lessons using Skype or other distance-learning methods.
You can find an Alexander Technique Teacher at AlexanderTechnique.com.15 Ultimately, you will be able to apply subtle shifts in movement to make lasting changes to your damaging postural habits, such as while you're sitting at a computer, picking up your child or driving a car.
Interestingly, much of what you'll learn is actually re-teaching your body to move the way you probably did naturally as a child. Arnold explained:
"Young children have this natural poise. If you watch a toddler in action, you will see an erect spine, free joints and a large head balancing easily on a little neck. A healthy child walks and plays with regal posture. Barring birth defects, we all began that way. But over the years, we often lose that spontaneity and ease.
Using the Alexander Technique, you can learn to strip away harmful habits, heighten your self-awareness and use your thought process to restore your original poise. In a way, you are learning something that, deep down, your body already knows."
The Alexander Technique: Useful for Musicians, Pregnant Women and Many More
The Alexander Technique has quite a following among musicians, including instrumentalists who often struggle with pain as a result of performing the same muscular movements over and over. Singers also benefit from the Technique by helping to release tension and create a more fluid performance.
The Alexander Technique is taught at the Juilliard School of Performing Arts in New York, The Royal College of Music in London and at many other schools of music, and it's also been endorsed by prominent musicians including Paul McCartney, Sting and the conductor Sir Adrian Boult.16
However, it is by no means a technique only useful for performance artists. Virtually anyone who struggles with chronic pain may benefit, including during pregnancy and childbirth or for those who use computers often. It has an incredibly wide range of applications, which explains why such a diverse group of prominent individuals — from actor Julie Andrews to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and author Roald Dahl — have endorsed it.17
Additional Steps to Remedy Back Pain
Once you understand that back pain is typically the result of poor posture and improper or inadequate movement, the remedy becomes clear. However, You can also try:
✓ Vitamin D and K2
Optimize your vitamin D and K2 levels to prevent the softening of the bones that may lead to lower back pain. Low vitamin D levels are common in people with chronic low back pain.18
✓ Mind-Body Techniques
As your mind is flooded with negative emotions, one of the ways your brain may cope is by substituting physical pain for emotional pain. As such, mind-body techniques, like the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) or mindfulness meditation, can be very helpful in relieving back pain.
Grounding yourself to the earth, also known as Earthing, decreases inflammation in your body, which may help quiet back pain. Your immune system functions optimally when your body has an adequate supply of electrons, which are easily and naturally obtained by barefoot/bare skin contact with the earth.
Research indicates the earth's electrons are the ultimate antioxidants, acting as powerful anti-inflammatories. Whenever possible, take a moment to venture outside and plant your bare feet on the wet grass or sand.
✓ K-Laser Treatment
Infrared laser therapy treatment helps reduce pain, reduce inflammation, and enhance tissue healing — both in hard and soft tissues, including muscles, ligaments or even bones.
These benefits are the result of enhanced microcirculation, as the treatment stimulates red blood cell flow in the treatment area. Venous and lymphatic return is also enhanced, as is oxygenation of those tissues.
The infrared wavelengths used in the K-Laser allow for targeting specific areas of your body. The K-Laser is unique in that it is the only Class 4 therapy laser that utilizes the appropriate infrared wavelengths that allow for deep penetration into the body to reach areas such as your spine and hip.
✓ Stay Hydrated
Drink plenty of water to enhance the height of your intervertebral disks. Because your body is composed mostly of water, keeping yourself hydrated will also keep you fluid and reduce stiffness.
✓ Avoid Smoking
Smoking reduces blood flow to your lower spine and promotes degeneration of your spinal disks.
✓ Pay Attention to How — and How Long — You Sleep
Studies have linked insufficient sleep with increased back and neck problems. Also pay attention to your sleep position. Sleep on your side to reduce curving of your spine and stretch before getting out of bed. A firm bed is recommended.