A Head-to-Toe Approach to Back Tension

The causes of your back pain aren’t just in your back, and neither will be the solutions.

If you’re struggling with tension or pain in your back, it’s more than a nuisance. It affects your quality of movement from the ground up. Your back—specifically your spine—is literally the axis you organize your movement around. If it’s not working properly, compensatory movements may set in, and you risk falling into a vicious cycle of pain and immobility. Let’s nip that in the bud, shall we?

Our spine is beautifully engineered to help us navigate the world against the ever-present pull of gravity. That’s the main challenge we’re always trying to overcome. The way we do it is through an organization called tensegrity, essentially a balancing act between elements of tension and elements of compression. Older, rougher models of tensegrity think of your muscles and connective tissues as tensile elements and bones as compressive elements, but we now know that this balancing act exists on a cellular level as well. This concept is illustrated beautifully in the “bioflow anatomy” concept developed by Dr. Andreo Spina.

In a nutshell: everything is connected in the body (even at the cellular level).

When Things Go Wrong

But this balancing act can get skewed pretty easily. Certain bits get out of alignment or carry unnaturally high levels of tension. Chronic stress, excess time sitting or standing, repetitive movements, and emotional trauma can all influence how and where we get ourselves out of whack.

When this happens, it can lead to aches, pains, and even a loss of control over the affected areas. This triggers that nasty cycle we mentioned earlier, called sensory-motor amnesia. Sensory-motor amnesia works roughly like this:

  1. Muscles engage when they don’t need to, and they forget to let go.
  2. These muscles fatigue and accumulate lactic acid, leading to sensations of pain.
  3. This pain blurs the communication between your brain and the affected areas.
  4. With little-to-no communication between brain and body part, tension accumulates even further as a protective mechanism.

You get the picture.

What Do We Do About It?

As we’ve talked about before, any change in our quality of movement requires a big-picture approach, including the “neuro,” the “physio,” and the “eco.” We have to take a look at interventions that will impact your neural functioning, your physiological makeup, and the broader context you put your body in. Each plays a huge role in how well your body moves. Below, I’ll walk you through a quick exploration of each side of the equation.

The “Neuro” Side

We’ll dip into the world of somatic education to tinker with the nervous system a bit. As you go through the following processes, it’s important to practice with awareness and curiosity. Mindlessly going through the motions won’t make things better. Tune in, and get acquainted with what sensations you notice in your body. That’s the raw data our nervous systems use to make movement.

What we’re doing here is primarily a learning stimulus. We’re teaching the nervous system new ways of organizing your body relative to the pull of gravity.

The “Physio” Side

Next, we need to provide a physiological stimulus to spur the desired adaptations we’re looking for. Now I don’t know you, but if you’re like most humans these days, you could benefit from some focus at the top and bottom of the chain. We often accumulate a whole helluva lot of tension in the neck and ankles, and we lose mobility in those areas.

Keep in mind: physiological adaptations occur at a much slower rate than neural adaptations, but if you incorporate the following movements into your daily practice, you’ll see marked benefits in a wide variety of movements.

The “Eco” Side

No exercises here. Just the no-BS truth. How did your back get so messed up in the first place? The big, bad gap. It’s the gap between what a human animal is built to be doing on a daily basis, and what you’re actually doing on a daily basis. There’s no way to sugar-coat it. You need to move more, in more ways. Even the most dynamic of us engage in vigorous movement for only 5% of each day.

As I’ve written about before, the simplest way to incorporate more subtle movement into your day-to-day routines is to spend more time on the floor. Sit on the floor for a meal, to check email, or to watch Netflix. You’ll naturally find yourself moving more in little ways, and that adds up over time. Need some inspiration for how to get started? Check out the #reclaimthefloor hashtag on Instagram for beginner variations and progressions.

Address the Factors of Your Back Pain

There we have it: a comprehensive look not only at the short-term issue of back pain and immobility, but also the long-term context that led you here in the first place. We have to tackle the neurological, the physiological, and the ecological factors that contribute to these issues.

It’s not an easy pill to swallow, but if you want to make a change in your body, you simply have to make a change in your life. 

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