Sensory-Motor Amnesia:
One Explanation of Idiopathic (of mysterious origin) Pain

by Lawrence Gold Credentials | Publications | Personal Page
Certified Hanna Somatic Educator

A mystery surrounds certain kinds of pain conditions. These are conditions of so-called undiagnosable pain -- pain that appears mysteriously, one day, pain that moves from place to place, pain that comes and goes.

     Let's take an example: hip pain.

     Hip pain may have its origins in a most surprising incident: an ankle sprain.

     Imagine that you've sprained your ankle. What do you do in the weeks that follow, to avoid the pain?

     You shift your weight to the other leg, don't you? You limp. Your whole posture and movement pattern shift. More than that, you want to put your attention on your life, not on your ankle, so you put the shift "on automatic".

     Where's the weight? On the good leg. Which hip muscles have to work overtime and extra hard to take the extra burden? Those of the good leg. Which muscles get tired and sore?

     Would you say that three to six weeks is enough time for a new movement habit to form?

     Muscles with a tension habit are the first to tighten under stress and the last to relax. Thirty years later, which muscles have gotten chronically tight and sore? By that time, you have forgotten all about the original injury and are completely unaware that at one point you tightened yourself up -- and are still holding yourself tight. You've got a "bad hip"? Maybe not. Maybe what you have is Sensory-Motor Amnesia and an overworked hip joint.

     The term, Sensory-Motor Amnesia, refers to states of muscular activity that we no longer sense because they have become so habitual. We are no longer aware of the action of holding tense. That's the amnesia. People are also often "amnesic" about the injury that led to their tension habit -- until asked to recall injuries they have had in their lives. Suddenly, the connection between their pain and the old injury becomes clear.

     What about knees? Your back? Your neck? Think of the variety of possible injuries (whiplash, anyone?) and you have a possible explanation for chronic muscular tension and pain anywhere in the body. To that, add the various ways you condition yourself to hold muscles tight (e.g., overuse injuries, improper athletic training, poor work habits).

The Quandary of Sensory-Motor Amnesia

     One of the most troublesome aspects of Sensory-Motor Amnesia is that one is left with a sense of trouble (pain and/or stiffness) someplace in the body, but with no sense of the muscular action that is causing it. The sense of how certain muscles work to cause certain movements, or of the muscular action that has distorted ones posture or limited movement, is diminished or lost, leaving one with the sense of predicament but with no sense of responsibility or of a way out.

Retraining the Muscular System

     The way of out Sensory-Motor Amnesia is to learn ones way out, in particular, to learn once again how to sense the muscular actions underlying pain and how to control those muscular actions. Muscular control comes from learning to control movement.

     Most therapeutic approaches involve someone doing something to or for us. The popular phrase is, "being worked on." However, the habitual tensing that develops after injury or under long-term stress has an "interesting" characteristic: it often returns after therapy -- or never leaves, leaving us guarding ourselves.

     If this has happened to you, you may be interested in the possibility of freeing yourself from your own tension.

     That possibility is available to everyone. The name of the process is, somatic education.

Somatic Education

     Somatic education goes beyond standard physical therapy techniques of strengthening and stretching to end muscular spasticity. Instead of emphasizing strength, somatic education emphasizes control, which enables a person to control (and release) muscular tension; instead of using stretching, somatic education teaches a person to relax, which give them greater -- and rather longer lasting -- freedom of movement equal to or greater than that provide by stretching.

     The actual process involves a learn-by-doing process involving various movement-and-sensation-based techniques that make it easier to feel muscular activity. One can experience a version of this process by means of somatic training. The experience is a kind of dawning awareness in which body parts feel more vividly present, more clearly defined, and more under voluntary control. These improvements, being learning-based, tend to be self-perpetuating and to endure as other kinds of learning endure and get stronger with use.

     Clinical somatic education addresses physical problems for which people typically see a chiropractor or that they chalk up to "aging". Most of the time, these problems are not medical problems; they are conditioning problems involving patterns of muscular strain coupled with a decrease in awareness and control of the muscular system, as described earlier.

     By understanding the mechanism by which insidious pain and stiffness appear, much of the mystery and "inevitability" of aging can be seen with new understanding. The next step is to test that understanding in practice because, as logical as something may sound, experience makes the point in the only terms that matter.


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