How to Use the Alexander Technique for Back Pain Relief

02 November 2018

The Alexander Technique is one of the best approaches for relieving back pain you’ve never heard of. For over 100 years, performers, athletes, and others have used it to alleviate tension, overcome injuries, and operate at their best.

The British Medical Journal published findings in 2008 that this gentle approach to working with the body has “long term [sic] benefits for patients with chronic back pain” and another British study in 2012 backed up these findings.

So what is this magical technique? Let’s take a look.

What is the Alexander Technique and Where Did It Come From?

The Alexander Technique is a method of retraining your body for more natural and efficient posture and movement.

According to AlexanderTechnique.com, it is “...a way to feel better, and move in a more relaxed and comfortable way... the way nature intended.”

The site authors distinguish it from therapies like massage or chiropractic by stating that it is “not a series of passive treatments but an active exploration that changes the way one thinks and responds in activity. It produces a skill set that can be applied in every situation. Lessons leave one feeling lighter, freer, and more grounded." 

It was developed in the late 19th century by an Australian actor named Frederick Matthias Alexander (1869-1955) who had begun to experience laryngitis, but only when he performed.

Doctors weren’t able to figure out the cause or help him, so over time he created his own solution. He figured out that his problem stemmed from excessive muscular tension patterns that would only get triggered when he was belting out Shakespeare.

Through this insight he was able to find ways to retrain his body to be able to move, speak, and perform effectively through an entirely different set of muscular activations. 

His friends and doctors were astounded by his results and encouraged him to teach others. He developed a method of using gentle hands-on guidance in combination with verbal directions to help clients recognize and stop their poor physical habits and move in a more efficient manner.

How Does the Alexander Technique Work?

Basic Concepts

According to a back pain-focused article on the Alexander Technique website, it “helps you perceive the cause of your back problem, and gets to the heart of it by helping you change your movement style.”

Using the Alexander Technique, you can learn to move more safely and with minimal strain. Simple movements such as sitting down and standing up become the subject of exploration as students learn to utilize only the muscles they actually need for a given movement or task.

With less habitual tension in major muscle groups, energy is freed up and blood can flow more efficiently, bringing vital oxygen to all the body tissues. It is possible that hormonal changes occur as well, taking the student out of fight-or-flight mode and helping them feel calmer and more at peace.

The authors of the 2008 study (mentioned above) hypothesized that “the technique could potentially reduce back pain by limiting muscle spasm, strengthening postural muscles, improving coordination and flexibility, and decompressing the spine.” 

How Lessons Work

Traditionally, the Alexander Technique has been taught through in-person lessons (and sometimes group classes) involving observation, instruction, and hands-on assessment and guidance. Instructors go through an extensive, multi-year training process in order to become certified.

In recent years, some teachers have begun working online, removing the hands-on component, and still finding the work just as effective, if not more so.

Lessons don’t require the removal of clothing, as in a massage, or the use of any special clothing or gear. They vary from teacher to teacher but can typically be 30-45 minutes.

Some teachers recommend starting with 2-3 lessons per week for a few months as you begin to adapt to the new postural and movement patterns. Once you’ve gotten used to your new way of using your body, you might scale back.

A teacher will determine the recommended timeframe and frequency of lessons once they see how quickly the client is progressing.

Getting Back Pain Relief With the Alexander Technique

Interested in trying it out? Mr. Alexander found that most people had a hard time using the technique on their own without guidance from a trained teacher. However, he did write detailed instructions for self-study, and others have followed suit with articles, books, videos, and more.

It begins with developing awareness of your body, feeling the way you tense certain muscles in your day-to-day activities, such as your neck muscles straining when you stand up or sit down.

You can find a variety of introductory videos and demos online. Basic exercises may focus on breathing, lying down in a constructive position, and changing how you engage your hands to start a common activity, such as typing. You can even learn how to avoid sneezing-induced back pain with the technique!

If you decide you’re ready to go deeper and hire a pro, you can find a teacher in your area to get the full hands-on experience, or if you’d rather work with someone online, you can check out this Facebook group.

Socrates famously said, “Know thyself,” and with the Alexander Technique, you can come to know your body in a whole new way, empowering you to get free from pain and unnecessary tension, and move through life with more grace and ease.

What do you think—will you give it a try? Share your experience in the comments!