How to Relieve Back Pain
Handling Muscle Tension Using the Breath
Because of my passion for physical activities I have personally experienced many different types of muscle pain. Eventually, I noticed that apart from sports accidents, my body was creating pain even when I was not exercising at all.
Modern medicine and physical practitioners can each offer excellent recovery and management supports for a variety of pain, yet the pain can easily return in such a manner that it eventually becomes chronic.
How do we get so much physical pain?
From my years of observation, I can say that we literally make it.
Habitually we are misusing the bodies so that the end result is always suffering. The good news however, is that it is not so difficult to relearn how to use the body properly and deal with physical pain more effectively.
Most of the physical pain manifesting in the body is related to muscle tension.
The most simple exercise that exhibits this point is the simple task of lifting up one arm horizontal to the ground and holding it there.
Depending on how strong I am, I might keep my arm suspended for seconds or minutes. However, regardless of my capacity, I eventually will feel tension build and shortly after experience a moderate amount of pain.
If I continue to keep my arm where it is, the pain will gradually increase.
At a certain point the pain becomes so insistent that it will become difficult to keep my arm raised. Eventually my arm might even begin to spasm and finally drop against my will.
Simply, a muscle under contraction burns nutrients. While in use, the muscles do not have the opportunity to refill the nutrients to its blood supply.
If, when this occurs, I bring my arm down for a few seconds, the muscle will become nourished and thus I will be able to raise my arm again, and again, and again….without any pain at all.
Pain is nothing more than an alert system. Pain is the mode of the body informing us that we are asking our muscles to do more that what they are presently capable of.
Chronic pain normally comes to our postural muscles, the ones that support the body against gravity. Chronic pain also visits to the muscles we use to do repetitive daily tasks (e.g. moving a mouse in front of a computer, cleaning up dishes all day, intense sport practice, etc.).
If we always use the same muscles to fight gravity or perform a repetitive task, eventually they will not have the ability to recover in time for the next request and they will start to dysfunction.
We can take a pill to feel better or a treatment to relax in these instances, but if we continue to apply the behaviours that have created the pain in the first place, the pain is guaranteed to return.
Why don’t the muscles relax on their own?
When we ask our muscles to operate in the same way over a prolonged duration, the muscles, in conjunction with the nervous system, will try to optimize their performance by applying “dynamic tension” even when we are not using them. If that tension is so intense that it does not allow the muscles to become nourished, the circumstance will lead the muscle to fail.
A tense muscle can present soft tender points in its fibers. These are called trigger points.
As these points are tender, they create intense pain when pressed upon or extended. The rest of the fibers around this tense point will not extend well. The muscle shortens at this location to avoid creating any further acute pain at the source.
Trigger points rarely release during stretching. Inevitably, we end up simply stretching some parts of the muscles except the ones we are trying to stretch to alleviate pain. This is so because the area around the trigger point maintains a certain high tension level to avoid creating any additional acute pain.
The best way to soften this kind of tension is to learn how to actively undo it.
The muscles need two things: to be fed and to breathe. From these two elements, they will be able to properly recover.
The muscles first need to release to be fed.
To release, we need to remove the trigger points.
To remove the trigger points, we need to select a technique - of which there are many.
I offer here the one that feels the simplest and most effective to me.
The optimal way to dissolve a trigger point is to place a small amount of pressure on the point using one finger and apply the One Minute Practice.
One of the biggest challenges for a beginning physical therapist is understanding where to find the trigger points in a muscle. There are charts available everywhere and of course I will give more graphical information in this text, but still there is nothing like a trained finger for spotting these points.
Every time you feel that a muscle is shorter than it is supposed to be, you are likely to find a trigger point within in it.
As an experiment, try to stretch your body, focusing particularly on your chest/ribcage.
Is there any spot in between your ribs where you feel pulling more than anywhere else?
Put a finger in one of those spots and try to notice the density of the muscle.
If the muscle feels dense, even when you are not stretching it, there is a good chance that the muscle has not been releasing completely and thus is holding tension.
If you would like to know more about triggers points I would love to refer you to the work of Drs Janet Travell and David Simons. You can read some of their history here on this wikipedia page.
The work that these doctors have presented is of great interest to me. They have uncovered correlations between the manifestation of trigger points, chronic pain patterns and internal organs dysfunctions.
Some may argue that even acupuncture itself is focused on these relationships as well!
What’s interesting to me is that both Acupuncture and the Myofascial Theory rely on injections (dry or wet needles) to address the trigger points and then to release them.
I am offering here a solution that does not require any needling and instead uses only the mere qualities of breath.
To do this, it is fundamental that you understand how to use the breath in order to achieve such a result.
To apply the practice it is important that you have already integrated the Specific Breath as described in our Foundations chapter.
If you have not read that chapter, please read it first.
To release Trigger Points and tension in the muscles follow the steps below:
You might notice when the muscles begin reacting to your breath. You might feel them vibrating subtly.
If and when you feel this, slow down your breath even more (while maintaining ease) in order to extend the duration of the vibration as much as possible.
The vibrating signifies that the trigger point or the tension of the muscle is beginning to release. All that is required of you now is to be patient until the fibers of the muscle release and the tension disappears.
If you cannot get to this point, try to change your pressure. Depending on what pressure you apply you might feel a different response. More pressure will allow to you to access the deeper tissues, but if you are not feeling any release, it might be because there is still tension on the superficial level that must first be attended to. If this is the case, release your pressure a bit and focus on the superficial level first until it feels cleared.
The factors that impact the time needed to release specific muscles will vary depending on both the precision of the pressure as well as that of the breath.
If you feel it working, you will notice how one breath can unlock a muscle fiber completely. If you perceive no response, you will know that there is some dis-coordination between the pressure and/or the breath.
Luckily, the rule is simple: the more you practice the better you get it.
The pain appears mostly in the region just below the shoulders.
Search for trigger points or tense muscles in the front region, where the image below is colored in blue. Release them with the Specific Breath.
The space between the shoulderblades can often get into tension and spasm. Typical of office jobs.
Apply the Specific Breath along the blue area marked in the picture below.
The red spot in the picture below shows the area where we can accumulate tension. Typical for office workers.
Apply the Specific Breath along the blue region in the picture below.
Sharp pain in the kidney region or just tired muscles tend to be originated by tension on the upper part of the abdomen. Check the soft region of the stomach and the ribs around it.
Apply Specific Breath to release the tension.
Quadratus lumborum and the erector spinae tend to be the most exposed muscles of this region.
All central abdominal muscles can create tension that affects the muscles on the back.
Be extremely precise in applying the Specific Breath to all places around the blue area in the picture.
In this case most of the pain is originated by extreme tension in the Iliacus muscles.
Apply the Specific Breath to the area marked in blue until the pain fades.
The pain around the sacrum could get extremely sharp. All the blue areas must be checked for tension or trigger points, as a wide range of muscles may concur to create tension around the sacrum.
Sciatic pain tends to get easily chronic because of postural issues.
The area in red shows where the pain tends to manifest.
The area in blue is where we apply the Specific Breath.
When sciatica occurs we normally have accumulated tension along the Psoas muscle that tends not to relax. Other minor muscles could get involved, that’s why it’s important to check all of the blue areas in the picture.
Applying the Specific Breath on the region around the diaphragm tends to relax the head of the Psoas, while the lower part is relaxed when we get deeper and deeper in the breath and closer to the hip crease.
Using the breath to address the physical tension that causes scoliosis.
Applying One Minute Practice to address neck tension and resolve related headaches.