Will Rolfing Alleviate Physical Pain?

  Physical pain is what brings fully 90% of my clients into my Rolfing in Austin, TX practice. Pain is a great motivator. Often, Rolfing is a last resort for people that have tried any number of traditional or holistic therapies with little or no success, whether it’s surgery, physical therapy, corticosteroid injections, chiropractic, acupuncture, or massage. Many times, Rolfing can fill the gap for these folks and give their bodies the support and ease they need to recover from the pain cycle. There have been many, many times over the years that someone comes into my practice having tried several other therapies, and the technical know-how I have has been exactly the skill their body needs to feel better. Sometimes that’s happened in one session. Other times it’s taken several.  Either way, those are great days as a practitioner, and as a client.

Pain can be a tricky thing to solve, however. It’s not always as easy as “I have pain here, fix it here.”  Rolfing, as a system of bodywork, is designed to address the whole body rather than simply the local area, to create balance and support, and that can often be enough. But sometimes even that relatively simplified view of “get the best, smartest manual work = pain relief” doesn’t play out.

In recent years, neuroscience has taught us a LOT about pain and its causes. We now know that getting the right medical or manual intervention is but one part of the healing equation. Other significant factors that may need to be addressed include stress, thoughts, and emotions, and how they affect the nervous system; diet and lifestyle factors; the meaning or stories assigned to the pain; and overall physical activity and function. This variety of inputs creates a unique equation to you that manifests physically in the body, and can be challenging to unravel. That’s why even dramatic interventions like surgery don’t always resolve pain.

Here’s a short and interesting video that lays this out a bit:  

So, what may seem like a relatively simple, painful spot in the body that just can’t quite heal may in fact need a more systematic effort in order to come to resolution. I had a great experience in my practice about how not communicating this well with clients can lead to faulty expectations and disappointment (which, in today’s social media-based information exchange, has the potential to really negatively impact practitioners).

A young UT student came to see me who’d been experiencing right shoulder and neck pain for several months. The cause for it wasn’t clear, he perhaps fell a year prior and regularly participated in sports, but tightness and discomfort had manifested for about 3-4 months leading up to our session. Acupuncture had been tried once or twice, without any change, and the acupuncturist had then recommended Rolfing to help solve the pain.

It was clear that stress was a big part of this client’s life; it was one of the first things he mentioned as we chatted, and his neck and shoulders were rather tight in the way that stressed bodies are. My diagnostics concluded that he had a very healthy structure overall (hooray for youth!), but that his neck and head were tightly drawn down into the right shoulder area – imagine what it looks like when you’re holding your phone between your head and shoulder for too long. From a strictly structural point of view, this was a great place to begin our work:  free up the neck, head, and shoulder from each other and see how the system and the symptoms would respond.

This aspect of our session was pretty straightforward. The client’s structure changed and improved rather easily. Movement of the shoulder smoothed out and the head balanced better on top of the shoulders and spine. I gave some brief homework to begin to track bodily responses to stress (Do the shoulders raise? Is there a habitual head tilt when working?), and we discussed the potential for dietary triggers being a factor. I was satisfied overall with the outcome, and as is often the case in a first appointment, I had the chance to give the client a good sample of what to expect from further care but not necessarily use every tool I have at my disposal.

Where I failed was in the education department. A few days after our session, the client posted a 3-star review on Yelp (I know, not the end of the world, but review ratings are a huge deal for small businesses) expressing his disappointment at still experiencing the same levels of pain and tightness, despite greater awareness of posture and placement of his body. If I had to guess, I would suspect that he went back into his stressful world without understanding well enough the physical impact of that stress on his body. So, upon reflection, I truly felt that I had done the best work possible, but the structural changes we made in the session were probably quickly overridden by a stress-induced habit – something along the lines of holding his shoulders tightly upward. Those constantly locked-up muscles were going to keep sending him pain signals until he figured out how to undo the habit pattern.

This was such a great reminder about the importance of creating awareness around the process of dealing with pain, describing better how structure is just one part of the equation, and giving enough emphasis to the importance of learning how to undo the habit patterns to resolve the pain. That’s potentially a challenging process, particularly for someone charging their way through school, but I believe it’s important to address pain holistically and not just expect that a single type of intervention will be a panacea.

So what does this all mean for you, and how does it relate to my practice? Will Rolfing alleviate physical pain? For one, it gave me an even deeper appreciation for clear communication about the impact of non-structural patterns on the body. But more importantly, I hope it’s illustrative of the level of engagement it sometimes takes to resolve pain patterns in the body.

In my Rolfing practice, our focus goes beyond simply changing and balancing your connective tissue, beyond just “fixing” your body. Though that sometimes works, my particular focus is on educating and empowering you so that you can become your own best practitioner. Working with mindfulness, learning how to slow down and study yourself and your body’s responses to stimuli, is a powerful way to gain a deeper understanding about what supports or triggers your pain. And looking carefully at your movement patterns, improving coordination, and teaching you new tools for simpler, more efficient movement gives you a new operating platform from which to use your body and move through the world. The combination of Rolfing, mindfulness, and movement education in my practice more completely addresses the healing equation than manual work alone, and leads to a longer-lasting, more impactful change to your health and comfort. And even your pain too.

My goal is to put you back in the driver’s seat when it comes to your health. Together we’ll not only create a healthier body through Rolfing, we’ll give you the right tools to deeply connect you to the impacts (positive and negative) of your day-to-day actions, and to discover your own authentic ways to move and be in your world.

Contact me if you have specific questions about pain in your body and if Rolfing is a good fit for treatment.