A pain in the neck?
A new study published in the prestigious Annals of Internal Medicine demonstrates what has been known all along by Alexander Technique teachers: that improving the way we go about our daily activities can relieve a pain in the neck.
Two out of three of us will suffer with neck pain at some point in our lives (source: Patient UK) and most cases involve ‘nonspecific pain’, caused by poor postural and movement habits or minor sprains rather than serious underlying disease or injury.
Symptoms – including restricted movement of the neck and pain that may spread from either the neck or shoulder to the base of the skull or down the arm – may begin to improve after a few days and be gone within a few weeks. However, sometimes the symptoms persist, become chronic and are more difficult to get rid of.
Chronic neck pain, which is defined as persisting beyond three months, is generally treated with pain killers and physiotherapy.
However, a study funded by Arthritis Research UK, and managed by a large research team based at the University of York, found that participants who attended one-to-one Alexander Technique lessons had, on average, nearly a third less pain and incapacity at the end of the trial than was reported before lessons began. This group also had significantly less pain than did a group that had received usual GP-led care alone throughout the study.
A total of 517 people with chronic neck pain took part in the trial. To qualify, all had been diagnosed with and experienced nonspecific neck pain for at least three months. The average duration was six years, so most had lived with neck pain much longer. Participants were randomised to one of three groups that offered:
20 one-to-one Alexander Technique lessons during a period of five months (along with continuing usual care) or
12 acupuncture sessions with equivalent overall length of time to the 20 Alexander lessons (along with continuing usual care) or
Continuing usual care alone.
The ‘usual care’ offered to all patients included any NHS tests and treatment that became necessary as well as out-of-pocket costs, such as for non-prescription medication.
The Alexander Technique lessons enabled participants to make beneficial long-term changes to the way they carried out their everyday activities such as working at a computer, walking, sitting or standing. At the end of the trial, one year after lessons began, they were still on average enjoying the same level of pain reduction that they did at the end of the lessons about seven months before. The results also showed a significant increase in people's knowledge and ability to manage their own condition following Alexander lessons, and that this increase was associated with a greater reduction in pain and incapacity.
Lessons in the Alexander Technique are designed to help people become more aware of (and discover how to reduce) any harmful postural and mental habits that often contribute to pain, tension and stress. People can be inspired and enabled to rediscover their natural co-ordination and balance and realise the possibility of healthier ways of living, provided they resolve to apply the Technique in their daily lives.
Alexander Technique teacher and member of the research team, Julia Woodman, commented: "An habitual forward position of the neck can be reduced by the frequent practice of lying semi-supine (lying on your back with your knees up, feet on floor and head supported, for example by some books), while applying attention to your whole self as recommended by your teacher, and continuing this awareness when moving to get up and when up and about."
Dr Hugh MacPherson from the University's Department of Health Sciences and Principal Investigator for the study added: “Our trial demonstrates the benefits of empowering people to make positive changes in their daily lives to overcome or reduce their neck pain.”
The Alexander Technique is a self-empowering, self-care method that leads to improved muscle tone and general coordination. Its teaching is centred on avoidance of unnecessary mental and physical tension in everyday activities through increasing calm attention to yourself and your surroundings, with priority being given to poise of the head and the whole spine. Learning and applying the Technique can ease chronic back pain and may also be helpful for reducing unwanted general muscle tension and stiffness, breathing or vocal problems, anxiety and various stress-related conditions.
Further information about the Alexander Technique and how to find your nearest teacher can be found at www.alexandertechnique.co.uk.