Will the Alexander technique help with my pain?

‐ December 2, 2019

As you might imagine, I get this question a lot. So let me give you the honest answer up front; I don’t know. I don’t know if the Alexander technique will help with your pain.

Of course that doesn’t mean that I don’t know whether the Alexander technique can help with pain. Professional experience and clinical research both show clearly that it does, it’s just that that doesn’t guarantee that it will work for you.

But, while I can’t give you a guarantee about your particular situation, I can explain a little about what the Alexander technique does, and how it might be useful. Hopefully you can use this information to inform your decision. First, let’s cover some basic truths.

Pain is awful. 

Physical, emotional, chronic, acute. Migraine, back pain, nerve pain, RSI. Pain is awful. Over 20% of us are dealing with pain at any one time with around 10% suffering from chronic pain (pain that has lasted for more than 12 weeks). Most of us will be in this position at some point in our lives. The problem is, when it comes to whether a particular modality can fix it, the answer is almost always; it depends.

The human body is a messy, complex system, made up of a huge number of interconnected parts, each of which might be contributing to pain symptoms. Each person is unique, and so each case requires a unique solution. That said, there are some general things we can say about the Alexander Technique and it’s efficacy in relieving pain.

Fight or flight.

The Alexander technique is most effective for symptoms caused either by an overactive sympathetic nervous system (the mechanism that triggers the fight/flight response), or by a mechanical misuse of the body.

Broadly speaking, this means that if your pain (or other condition) gets worse when you’re stressed, tired or have a minor illness like a cold, the Alexander technique is very likely to be helpful in at least reducing your symptoms. This is also true if there are triggers which make your symptoms worse, things like speaking in public, playing an instrument, or working at a computer. Similarly if your pain gets worse after sitting, standing or even lying down for a long time, all of these are indications that your problem is at the level of the sympathetic nervous system, or is a mechanical issue, and that the Alexander Technique will be helpful.

Still, it’s important to note that this isn’t a diagnosis. These are indications that your condition might be improved by the Alexander Technique. The only way to know whether the Alexander technique can help, is to see an Alexander teacher.

Don’t suffer in silence.

Usually, your first lesson with an Alexander technique teacher will include some explanation of what the technique is, and some guided movement. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about your specific situation or what is happening during the lesson. The Alexander technique isn’t guesswork. Your teacher should be able to explain how the patterns of tension they are detecting may be contributing to your problems.[1]

Your teacher will guide you through a number of simple movements, that will usually include sitting and standing. The purpose of this is to experience moving without over-activating the nervous system in the way that you have been previously. This will usually feel different to the way you’re used to moving, and will often feel lighter and easier than before.

Even if the movements feel strange, they shouldn’t be sudden or painful. After at most 2 or 3 lessons, you should expect to be able to feel the improvement in quality of movement, or at least to be able to contrast the easier feeling you have with a teacher with your normal experience. By this time, you should also have noticed for yourself some of the patterns of tension and reaction that you are exhibiting and more importantly, have some idea of how preventing these patterns will help your problem.

Learn your rhythms.

As these patterns of tension begin to unravel, usually so too will your pain. This isn’t necessarily the end of the story though. If your pain is being caused by the stress of some aspect of your lifestyle, then it’s likely that you’ll need to make wider-reaching changes if you want to be free of it. 

This doesn’t necessarily mean giving up an activity or dramatically changing your job. Sometimes there just isn’t the option of stopping the thing which causes the problem entirely, but it’s often more realistic than it seems at first to make some changes. If you were obese you’d understand that you’d have to do more than just taking regular walks for a few weeks to reach a healthy weight, right? Same thing.

Don’t give up.

I really hate to give what is basically a “suck it and see.” answer to such an important question. Most people don’t come to the Alexander technique, or any therapy for that matter, without having spent time, energy and money exploring other options, so this isn’t a question to be taken lightly. Chances are, you’ve already tried a few different things, and if you’re reading this, chances are, they haven’t worked.

As I said, our bodies are complicated and messy and making the right changes when things go wrong is rarely a single step process. Be as methodical as you can. See if you can find patterns or triggers in your symptoms. Take notes. Present these to your Alexander teacher, therapist or doctor. Ask questions of the people who are supposed to be helping you, if they don’t have a good answer for why they’re doing something, chances are they don’t know what they’re doing. Listen to your body, you are the world’s leading expert in what you’re feeling, but you are also biased. Be willing to change and try to be as objective as possible.

Most importantly, don’t give up. 

[1] One small caveat here, is that to begin with, these patterns might not be noticeable to you because they feel normal. The same way you get used to the smell in a room or a sound that used to disturb you at night, it’s easy to stop noticing tension in the body once it’s been there for a while. To complicate things further, a decrease in tension might even feel “wrong”. The same way you might suddenly wake up if the aforementioned noise stopped. ↩︎

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