It's not often that my field makes national headlines. We take notice when it does. This week Jane Brody, a conservative long-time writer, published an article in the New York Times. If you haven't yet read that article Trying the Feldenkrais Method for Chronic Pain, it is worth a read. Brody discusses how she had heard of the method long ago, but pushed it to the side thinking it was some kind of "New Age gobbledygook with no scientific basis."
Based on the recommendation of Cathryn Jakobson Ramin, author of Crooked, she decided to give the Feldenkrais® approach a try, and she feels enlightened to say the least. So what is the scientific basis for how the Feldenkrais Method works to reverse chronic pain?
From my view centers around several well-studied fields: Learning theory, Neuroplasticity, and Human Development. These three fields are so intertwined that I think it is quite difficult to truly separate them. I want to see if I can make key findings from these fields easier here, not in an attempt to over simplify, but as a way of helping you gain some knowledge around how your body-mind works.
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Your nervous system, which includes your brain, spinal cord, nerves, and sense organs, is all the time trying to do right by you. When you were born, it spent most of its time learning (notice the word learn) how to regulate basic functions like respiration and body temperatures.
It had to "sense" a myriad of sensations for the first time and started doing its best to decide which of these required what kind of response. Its interest, above all else, is your ability to survive. So it tends to err on the side of caution. And in that quest, sometimes inaccurately, defines something as potentially dangerous that turns out to be quite okay. As more internal and external experiences occur, it becomes better and better at categorizing, responding, and growing into the next phase of life. This is neuroplasticity: the ability of your nervous system to change in form and function. This is also learning. This is also living. That children did this is nothing new. But fairly recent on the scientific scene is the discovery that adults, even adults in old age, are capable of neuroplasticity. Not as much is fixed as we thought it to be.
Chronic Pain and Neuroplasticity
A feature of the plastic brain or nervous system is that it gets better at doing what it does a lot of. The more times it is called to do that item, whatever it might be, the better it gets at it. It can be really good at producing back pain for example. This isn't the same thing as "it is all in your head" thinking. But at the crux of it, all experiences are interpretation made by the nervous system. Joy, sadness, anger, comfort, and pain are felt because the nervous system says X sensation equals Y.
Pain and fear are survival necessities. Joy isn't. Pain keeps us from putting our hand on a hot burner. Pain teaches us to avoid stubbing our toe and potentially breaking it. Fear tells us to avoid walking off of a cliff, stepping out into traffic, or dark alleys. Because they are necessary for survival, the animal brain in us will sometimes interpret something as pain or fear, when really it was just sour or bitter, or reminded of a time when something was dangerous.
Most chronic pain situations begin with some kind of trauma such as an auto accident, a lifting injury, stepping off the curb wrong, or even assault. Perhaps the injury felt big. Maybe it didn't. But then something else happens, and something else, and somehow it has been several months and the person is still in pain. When the stimulus that results in pain is repeated enough or is scary enough, it begins to need less and less information to decide to feel pain. It begins to jump to conclusions. The brain's pain map has become faulty.
Neuroplasticity and Brain Maps
Different areas of the brain provide different functions. Researchers have studied what parts of the brain does what kinds of functions. Based on these studies, they have created pain maps, sensory maps, and motor maps to name a few. As a person becomes more specialized in an area, these maps are changed. For example in your sensory-motor maps you will assign more territory to your hands and hearing if you are a musician than if you are an olympic runner.
If you experience chronic pain, we know it isn't just the pain map which is changed but also the sensory-motor maps. People with chronic back pain have been studied and found that they do not have an accurate idea of where their spine is located in their body. If you want to move your hand, but you perpetually perceive it to 2 inches to the left of where it really is, this is going to cause a lot of disappointing outcomes. The same is true with your back. You need to accurately sense your body parts and their relationships to their partner parts to use them well.
The Feldenkrais Method® and Chronic Pain
With that rudimentary background laid out, we are ready to respond to how the Feldenkrais Method helps with chronic pain.
#1 If you have been using yourself in a way that leads to wear and tear, instead of wear and repair, the Feldenkrais Method guides you to learn about your parts of yourself and how they can function together. It turns out we know way less about how to use these bodies than one might imagine. Yes, we need to move, and your system craves motion, but there are more efficient and less efficient ways to move. The less efficient leads to gradual wear and tear. As your efficiency improves, the system moves increasingly towards wear and repair. This means the nervous system doesn't need to stay on high alert so much.
#2 Sensory-motor maps can become faulty through trauma, chronic pain or misuse. Neuroplasticity says they absolutely can be improved regardless of age. Anyone who has experienced the Feldenkrais Method can attest to how brilliantly it helps you discover and sense in more ways that are truly novel. Because the brain is preoccupied with survival, anything novel really catches its attention. It wants to examine new experiences thoroughly so it can decide, “Is this safe, and if yes, what is it?” The Feldenkrais Method coaches small, gentle movements while breathing easily. Creating safe explorations frees up the nervous system from staying stuck on "Unsafe" or "Pain" and allows it to assign new sensations such as ease, comfort, and fun. We know from research that the sensory-motor maps are heavily impacted by how you use yourself. We also know that people with chronic back pain do not have an accurate perception of where their spine is located in their body. If you want to use your parts harmoniously, you need to know about where they are and how they function.
#3 By staying within the safe, comfortable range of movement, the overactive aspects of the brain that sense pain can begin to come off of alert and return to their natural function. This results in actually informing you when something is truly risky. The Feldenkrais Method lowers the background noise caused by a disordered or fearful nervous system. That lowering of that noise, gives you an opportunity to listen to other “voices” that before just couldn’t be heard above the din.
#4 By becoming aware of how you move, you gain choices. And not just choices in the way you stand up or reach for a glass, but choices about how you function in the world. Along with this comes opportunities to be curious, experimental and to choose painless, perhaps even pleasurable interactions and ways of moving.
In my own personal journey, the Feldenkrais Method marked a change from living a live centered around chronic pain to one centered around possibilities. It was so impactful that I became a practitioner in the work. And over the past 15 years have helped thousands of people come out of chronic pain. The options today for finding a practitioner on-line or in person are the best they have ever been. Classes to private sessions, online to live all give a wide range of financial entry points. There isn’t a better time to give it a whirl and see if you too can release the burden of chronic pain.
Schedule with Cynthia on-line for a live, in person session in Cincinnati or a video session. Or you can call us at 513-541-5720.
You can find other North American practitioners at feldenkrais.com. Or ask us. We will help connect you to someone near you.