Retrain Your Brain and Get Out of Pain
Updated: Apr 26, 2022
The neuromuscular system is a combination of the nervous system (neural), and the muscular system (muscular). Essentially, muscles are controlled by the nervous system. In the most basic sense, muscles move bones and brains move muscles. It is our brain and nervous system that control the movement of our muscles, and therefore all of our bodily movements. If you think of your muscles as a lever and pulley system, when one muscle or group of muscles tighten, an opposing muscle or set of muscles has to lengthen. If this pattern is repeated over and over, it becomes a habit and can lead to postural distortions and movement dysfunction.
In an optimally functioning neuromuscular pattern, the brain sends a message to the muscles to contract to induce movement. When the movement is no longer needed, the brain stops sending the message and the muscle relaxes. However, sometimes this feedback loop between your brain and muscles (your sensory motor system) gets “stuck”. That is, the brain continuously sends messages to the muscles to contract. This can occur with for several reasons, including:
1) Not moving enough (e.g. too much sitting, and not moving in a variety of ways);
2) Doing too much of the same type of activity (e.g. always carrying a heavy bag on the same side);
3) Poor postural habits (e.g. spending long hours slumped over a computer screen);
4) Athletic training (especially one-side dominant sports) ; and
5) Psychological stress which causes muscular tension
Our brain is so intelligent that, if it sees the need to repeat a movement over and over, it will make that movement involuntarily, so that the brain can then focus on other things. The brain literally forgets how to release the tension and loses sensation of the muscles! Thomas Hanna, a renowned movement educator and pioneer whose method of somatic movement education I study, called this “sensory motor amnesia”. Chronically muscle tightness not only feels sore and painful, it compresses your joints and leads to a greater chance of injury.
The good news is that the brain can re-learn how to relax muscle tension, bring back sensation, and once again coordinate healthy movement. We can learn new movement patterns that override the old patterns that do not serve us. In Hanna’s philosophy of movement, the most effective way to retrain the neuromuscular system is by engaging one’s brain through movement. This is called somatic neuromuscular education.
Somatic neuromuscular education works with the neuromuscular system to release chronic tension and restore healthy movement. While most forms of exercise focus on achieving specific results or the external appearance of the movement, neuromuscular releases are performed slowly and consciously with the intention of focusing on the internal experience. Performing the movements in a slow, controlled and focused way will aid in learning new patterns, and help to break the cycle of reinforcing unhealthy patterns.