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Treating Back Pain and More with the Alexander Technique

Photo By: Sarah Joy

By A. Devia

Consider the Alexander Technique Therapy For

The goal of the Alexander Technique is to bring the body's muscles into natural harmony. Hence it can aid in the treatment of a wide variety of neurological and musculoskeletal conditions, including disorders of the neck, back and hip; traumatic and repetitive strain injuries; chronic pain; arthritis; breathing and coordination disorders; stress related disorders; and even migraine.

People with sciatica, scoliosis, osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and neck and low back syndrome may find the Alexander Technique useful in improving overall strength and mobility. Others with Lyme disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, lupus or fibromyalgia may use it for pain management. It is also used to improve functioning in people with multiple sclerosis, stroke, or Parkinson's disease.

Because the technique requires active participation by the patient, it's impossible to test its effectiveness with customary scientific procedures, such as "placebo controls," in which some patients are given a fake remedy, and "double-blind trials," in which neither the patients nor the therapists know who's receiving genuine treatment. Nevertheless, many people who've undertaken this therapy, including the likes of John Dewey and Aldous Huxley, vouch for its benefits.

How the Alexander Technique Treatments Are Done

Alexander Technique sessions are most often conducted one-on-one with a teacher, but group classes may be available as well. Students wear comfortable clothing, and perform everyday actions, such as walking, bending, standing or sitting, while the teacher encourages the students to shed ingrained--and inappropriate--muscular reactions and allow healthy natural reflexes to take over. To encourage the release of natural reactions, the teacher will lead a student through various movements, occasionally touching the neck, back, or shoulder to help trigger the proper reflexes. Some sessions may have the student lying down most of the time, while others involve mostly sitting and standing. If there is a specific movement the student wishes to improve, such as working at a computer keyboard, holding a telephone, or driving a car, the teacher may work with the student on those as well. Teachers stress that the Alexander Technique is not a passive experience, such as a massage, However, the sessions are not strenuous or physically taxing. No machinery is used.

Treatment Time: The length of each session varies from teacher to teacher, but usually ranges from 30 to 45 minutes.

Treatment Frequency: Sessions may be weekly or more often, depending on the teacher and your needs. The recommended series is a set of 30 lessons.

What Treatment with the Alexander Technique Hopes to Accomplish

With advancing age, most people seem to fall into a variety of common, but unnatural, habits of movement and posture. Depending on the amount of energy and tension these habits commandeer, the results can range from subtle changes in mood to outright pain. The Alexander Technique attempts to remedy these problems by discouraging habitual, counterproductive muscular reactions and allowing efficient natural reflexes to take over.

When you begin training in the Alexander Technique, the goal is to inhibit your habitual muscular responses by deliberately and consciously "doing nothing" so that your body can revert to its inherent natural movements. This is not an exercise in relaxation, per se, but rather a way of reclaiming an efficiency and ease of movement lost through years of poor postures and unnatural muscular response. As you "unlearn" inappropriate habits in the formal sessions, you'll be encouraged to practice your new freedom of movement as you go about your normal activities.

Unlike other bodywork disciplines, such as the Feldenkrais Method, the Alexander Technique focuses on the relationship of head, neck and torso, which teachers call "primary control." Alexander Technique teachers believe that when these three are properly aligned, the head will lift upward and release the neck and spine, improving overall muscular function and allowing you to move your whole body in a harmonious way. Central to the technique are the four "Concepts of Good Use," which focus on freeing the muscles from unneeded tension:

Allow your neck to release so your head can balance forward and up;
Allow your torso to release into length and width;
Allow your legs to release away from your pelvis;
Allow your shoulders to release out to the sides.

The Alexander Technique was developed in the early 1900's by Australian actor F.M. Alexander, who felt that his own bad posture had caused his voice-loss problems. He began working on a system to teach simple, efficient movements that would help improve balance, posture, and coordination while relieving pain. The resulting technique became popular in the U.S. after the first World War, especially among artists, performers and intellectuals, and has been practiced successfully ever since.

Today, the Alexander Technique is used not only by those seeking pain relief, but also by many actors, dancers, athletes, and other performers who use their bodies intensively.

Who Should Avoid The Alexander Technique?

The Alexander Technique is generally considered safe for everyone. However, if you have any chronic health problems, it's wise to check with your doctor before undertaking any form of alternative therapy.

What Side Effects May Occur with the Alexander Technique?

With its emphasis on efficient release of natural muscular reflexes, the Alexander Technique has no known side effects.

How to Choose a Therapist

Make sure your teacher is certified by the North American Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique. This professional organization has well-established programs and requires members to take at least 1,600 hours of training over a three-year period, observe minimum teacher-to-student ratios, and follow set guidelines for conducting their classes. While no special background is required to become a teacher, many practitioners are dancers or other performers who have found the technique useful in their own lives.

When Should Treatment Stop?

You may continue the Alexander Technique classes as long as you wish.

See a Conventional Doctor If...

It is important to make all healthcare decisions and discuss all treatment options with the advice of a qualified healthcare provider.  In addition, because the scope of the Alexander Technique is limited to problems with movement and posture, you'll need to continue regular medical treatment for any nonmuscular disorders such as infection or inflammation. Check with your doctor, too, if you experience any new symptoms while participating in Alexander Technique sessions.

American Center for the Alexander Technique (ACAT)
129 West 67th Street
New York, NY 10023
Phone: 212-799-0468
North American Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (NASTAT)
3010 Hennepin Avenue South
Minneapolis, MN 55408
Phone: 800-473-0620

The Alexander Technique: How to Use Your Body Without Stress. Wilfred Barlow, M.D. Healing Arts Press, 1991.
Back Trouble. Deborah Caplan. Triad Publishing, 1987.
Body Learning. Michael J. Gelb. Henry Holt, 1996.
Your Guide to the Alexander Technique. John Gray. St.Martin's Press, 1991.


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