You may have heard of muscle memory but what about forgetful muscles?
Wait, your muscles can forget?
In pain? Maybe SMA is the culprit.
Well, what is SMA anyways?? Glad you asked! :-) Sensory Motor Amnesia is a term coined by Thomas Hanna, Ph.D. Hanna is credited as the founder of the field of Somatics. Clinical Somatic Education (started by Hanna) is a system of neuromuscular movement therapy that helps people improve (or even recover) voluntary control of muscles that are in a chronic state of contraction due to accidents, illnesses, injuries, repetitive movements, or even emotional stress. These tight muscles are what Hanna referred to as Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA). The inability to control the tension/relaxation state of the muscle leads to a chronic involuntary contraction, meaning the SMA sufferer loses conscious, voluntary control of those muscles. Those chronically tight muscles affect physical structure and alter posture and movement. The little known concept of SMA can cause or be related to chronic back pain, sciatica, hip pain, gait dysfunction, plantar fasciitis, TMJ (temporomandibular joint) pain, neck pain, shoulder pain, and scoliotic spinal curves.
So how do you fix it? That is also a great question. The loss of ability to contract and relax muscles and move freely occurs in the nervous system. The miracle of the human brain teaches us how to read, write, crawl, walk, ride bikes (or unicycles) and how to design and build skyscrapers. The brain also protects us by responding to stress with altered movement patterns. Sometimes this protection is helpful in the short term but becomes maladaptive in the long term. If you realize that re-training the brain how to move and safely contract and relax muscle groups in a coordinated fashion from the inside (i.e. hack the nervous system), then; “ding, ding, ding, correct answer! You nailed it!” When we teach rehabilitative movement and address the nervous system as a whole (visual, vestibular and proprioceptive systems) clients can recover long term from the pain and injury cycle.
Let’s quickly compare re-training movement from the inside and improving motor learning on a brain based level to the traditional Western approach. There has been a chronic rise in back pain over the past 2 decades and there is plenty evidence and research supporting that statement. What do we do about this epidemic? Different approaches in Western medicine include surgery, spinal injections and painkillers. (Let’s not even start on the incredible bunny trail of the epidemic rise in painkiller addiction because you could write a book on it, and people have). These modalities have one thing in common. Instead of getting to the root of the symptoms and improving the nervous system, they simply treat the symptoms presented by the nervous system, acting as a patch or temporary fix, at best. How many people do you know who have had cortisone injections or more invasive treatment methods who are still in pain? I’m guessing everyone reading this can name at least a couple.
Don’t worry, there is more good news. In SMA, the involuntary, protective muscle contractions are learned when the input/output loop between the brain and the muscles is interrupted by injury, illness or stress and the brain subconsciously responds with that protective mechanism of keeping muscles turned on chronically. Overcoming SMA can take place through unlearning that chronic state of tension in muscle groups.
Most doctors will view plantar fasciitis, leg length discrepancy, sciatica, frozen shoulder, etc. as structural problems. Somatic educators, on the other hand, view these as functional issues in the nervous system that can be improved through correct sensory input and changing the input, brain’s decision making, and output (movement) loop. Passive modalities (chiropractic, massage, therapist directed stretching) will not reverse SMA symptoms long term. Re-training the central nervous system must involve the area where the problem originated; the brain’s control of the proper contraction and relaxation of the muscle groups involved. Passive therapies claim to have benefits like increased blood flow and expedited removal of toxins from the body. Many of those claims are actually accurate and these therapies can be helpful! These benefits are absolutely important and they truly do happen in the modalities like massage and chiropractic. The benefits, however, can be short-lived if they did not include active participation of that client or patient’s own nervous system. Changing motor control for the better can have positive, and lifelong functional benefits!
Why is somatic education so important? First of all, it teaches active lengthening of surrounding muscle groups through a slow, coordinated contraction of those muscle groups which creates an controlled lengthening of the chronically tight or spastic muscles. The brain can regain voluntary control of the muscles in this case. The exercises begin as gentle, slow, pain free movements that should be repeated daily. This improves daily self-awareness as well as balance, coordination and flexibility. When clients practice these movements consistently, posture improves as well as movement proficiency.