How Muscular Learning Leads to Pain and Degeneration

We’ve come to accept the fact that a healthy diet and regular exercise will help us live a longer life and avoid conditions like heart disease and diabetes. Even if we don’t follow that advice all the time, we know it to be true: our cardiovascular health and body weight are largely under our control.

In contrast, we assume that our bodies will inevitably break down and we must experience some sort of pain as we get older. Many people think that we have little to no control over this aspect of our health: our musculoskeletal condition. Even people who exercise regularly have muscle and joint pain and a variety of musculoskeletal problems. So, what else can we do besides stay active and hope that our bodies hold up?

What many people don’t understand is that it’s not necessarily how much we move our bodies—though that certainly is a factor—but how we use our bodies, that determines how our bodies hold up over time and whether or not we experience muscle and joint pain. And how we use our bodies is completely under our control.

The way that we stand and move is determined by learned muscular patterns that we develop over the course of our lives. We first learn new ways of standing and moving very slowly, and have to consciously think about every aspect of the posture or movement that we’re trying to learn. But as we repeat the posture or movement over and over, the neural pathways controlling our muscles become stronger. We gradually become better and more efficient at the muscular pattern we’re learning, and soon, we’ve learned it so well that we don’t have to consciously think about how to do it. The result of this learning process is known as muscle memory.

Once we’ve learned a posture or movement so well that we don’t have to think about it, it becomes difficult to change. This is where we run into trouble. The older we get, the more patterns we learn, and the more automatic and subconscious they become.

Over the course of our lives, we are constantly learning new ways of standing and moving. Stress, injuries, repetitive daily tasks, our personalities, and athletic training all contribute to our learned muscular patterns. These learned patterns build upon one another as we get older, making our muscles tighter, our movement stiffer, and limiting our range of motion.

Simply watch a child walking next to his grandparent and you can see the effects that muscular learning has over time. The child easily stands up straight and moves freely, arms and legs swinging loosely, while his grandparent moves stiffly and struggles to stand up straight.

It is this chronic muscular contraction, unnatural posture and limited movement that leads to muscle and joint pain and physical degeneration. When we use our bodies in unnatural and dysfunctional ways, our muscles become sore and our joints and bones break down.

These negative effects of muscular learning can be avoided, and largely reversed, by consciously working with the nervous system. With the slow, simple movement techniques used in Clinical Somatic Education, we can release chronic muscular tension and change deeply learned posture and movement patterns.

Unfortunately, it is widely believed by both the general public and the medical community that we have little to no control over our level of muscular tension and the way that we stand and move. Many people attempt to address their muscle and joint problems with passive, manipulative techniques such as massage and chiropractic that do not actively involve the nervous system in a learning process. When they don’t experience lasting results, people assume that nothing can be done.

There will come a time—maybe in five years, maybe in fifty—when taking care of our neuromuscular functioning will be akin to eating a healthy diet and exercising. It will be widely accepted that we have just as much of an ability to prevent chronic pain and physical degeneration as we do to prevent heart disease, obesity and diabetes. Getting to this point will require a significant shift in the way we think about our health, as well as fundamental changes in our health care and health insurance systems, but it is only a matter of time.

If you’re ready to learn Clinical Somatics exercises at home, a great place to start is the Level One Course.

Recommended reading:

Why We’re in Pain: Why chronic musculoskeletal pain occurs–and how it can be prevented, alleviated and eliminated with Clinical Somatic Education by Sarah St. Pierre, CSE

Somatics: Reawakening the Mind’s Control of Movement, Flexibility and Health by Thomas Hanna

About the Author:

Sarah Warren St. Pierre is a Certified Clinical Somatic Educator and owner of Somatic Movement Center. She has helped people with conditions such as chronic back pain, neck and shoulder pain, hip and knee pain, sciatica, and scoliosis become pain-free by practicing Thomas Hanna's method of Clinical Somatic Education. St. Pierre is the author of the book Why We're in Pain, which explains the science behind why learned muscular patterns lead to chronic pain and degeneration.