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Somatics

As massage therapists, we are continually trying to develop our treatment protocol in the most effective way so that it is of optimal benefit to our clients. In this, we are attempting to progress them to the point of self-rehabilitation.


September 17, 2009
By Dale Gran WC (Hon) l.C.S.P (Phys)

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As massage therapists, we are continually trying to develop our treatment protocol in the most effective way so that it is of optimal benefit to our clients. In this, we are attempting to progress them to the point of self-rehabilitation. I have found in treating my clientele that somatics is a bridge that fills the concern very effectively as it is a process of self inner awareness that is done in relation to each individuals own ability.    

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Somatics is perceiving the body from within, a first person perception, internal awareness. Somatics is a specific progression of movements performed by an individual, which involves the sensing of what is occurring during these specific movements in order to employ the sensory-motor system to help break down habitual patterns that have been formed from childhood.

Somatic movements are a way to help gain back the voluntary control of our muscles and bodies as a whole and become more aware of our “being” from within. It is important to break down the habitual patterns that each of us has built into our sensory – motor systems in order for us to have the “awareness” that is required to not live our lives in a state of muscular reflex or forgetfulness.

The History of Somatics
The groundwork of somatic education as a credible technique began in 1904 through F. Matthais Alexander, the founding father of the Alexander technique. Matthais experimented with internal self-awareness techniques in order to attempt to “force” proper posture.

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By focusing on the movements he was feeling, rather than the end result of straightened posture, Alexander was concentrating his proprioceptive attention on controlling the musculature of his body in order to alter his bodily posture rather than trying to focus on forcing the posture on his body.

Also during this same period, independently of each other, Elsa Gindler and Gerta Alexander evolved somatic education by focusing on the sensations within the body as they performed various movements rather than focusing on the movements themselves.

Proceeding this time, Moshe Feldenkrais took this information and developed a method of body re-education called Functional Integration that focused on the concept of, if you do the work of a muscle, it ceases to do its own work; in other words, it relaxes. The concept of this is quite simple, rather than trying to force a muscle to stretch, bring the origin and the insertion of the muscle together. The result of this is that the muscle will begin to partially relax. 

Later, Thomas Hanna based his work on that of Hans Selye and Moshe Feldenkrais. Selye recognized that physiological disease could arise from psychological causes such as stress. He meant that everything
we experience in our lifetime is a bodily experience.

To the already accepted principle of the “startle reflex,” Thomas Hannas added the theories of the “landau response” and the “trauma reflex,” inherent in all of us. These theories help to complete the pieces necessary to help explain the postural changes believed to occur due to aging.

The “startle reflex” is an adaptation of the neuromuscular system due to a threatening or worrisome situation, creating stress. Its sensory feedback is fear. Reflexes occur involuntarily in every living thing, it is necessary for survival. These reflexes present as a withdrawal or escape response.

The impulses that cause this response stem from the reticulospinal tract originating at the front of the pons and medullar reticular formation in the hindbrain.

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This area is referred to as the reticular activating system, it consists of small areas of grey matter interspersed among fibres of white matter. It has both sensory and motor function and receives input from
the higher brain regions that control skeletal muscles and regulate tone.

This area also alerts the cortex of incoming sensory signals. In short, the reticular activating system is an extensive network of branched nerve cells running through the core of the brain stem. When these cells are activated, a generalized alert or arousal behavior results.

The “startle reflex” occurs before we can perceive it or inhibit it. Its action makes us withdraw now, and process it later. An example of the startle reflex would be if you were walking past a semi truck and the driver unexpectedly blew the air horn. Your body would instantaneously go into the startle response. This would consist of;

  • closing of the eyes;
  • forward head movement;
  • elevation and internal rotation of the shoulders;
  • elbow flexion;
  • abdominal muscle contraction – trunk flexion depresses the rib cage and causes breathing restrictions;
  • internal rotation of the femurs;
  • flexion of the knees with ankle eversion.

This reflex of survival or quick withdrawal occurs in the front of the body and affects all flexor muscles.

This response serves to protect us from events that threaten us whether they are real or imagined.

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The Landau Response
The Landau response is the opposite of the startle reflex and its sensory feedback is effort. This reflex gets us ready to take action. It occurs in the posterior of our bodies effecting the extensor muscles.
This response causes lifting and arching of the back in preparation for forward movement. The discovery of this reflex is a continual process from the time a baby is about three months old and begins to lift its head.

It continues through infancy as they arch their back and extend their legs, on up through sitting, crawling and eventually into walking. As we become adults, we have acquired full control of the back muscles and they are now being used towards responsibilities in our lives. By responsibilities I mean the more things we have to do as adults the more these muscles are called into action.

The startle reflex and the landau response oppose each other to produce the opposite functions of protection and mobility. These reflexes involve the entire muscular system and also the central nervous system in a specific pattern of either withdrawal or positive actions. Actions occur with these reflexes, but there is associated sensation (sensory) with muscular movements.

Over time, the effects of these two reflexes is easily seen from the lateral view. Forward head carriage, flexed thoracic spine, hyper-lordosis, and abdomen protrusion are examples of this postural adaptation.

The trauma reflex is a protective muscular response of the sensory- motor system to injury. It is a common protective reflex against pain. With an injury or surgical procedure, the contraction of the muscle tissue around the area, or on that side of the body, function to hold a protective pattern. The trauma reflex can occur in any part of the body but is most obviously seen from the front or back as lateral flexion.

This protective pattern affects gait as well as the sense of balance.

At birth, we are little more than involuntary reflexes and autonomic responses. Gradually we learn our way into having conscious, voluntary control. If, however, something occurs to precipitate strong involuntary, autonomic reflexes, we can find our sensory-motor domain taken over by unconscious control against which we can do nothing directly; we can only, learn our way out of this and back into conscious control.

Our proprioceptive centres communicate and feedback thru “loops” it is always engaged in the process of self-regulation. The sensory-motor system is in unity and built into the spinal column.

The spinal column is composed of ascending sensory nerve pathways entering from the posterior horn of the spinal cord and descending motor nerve pathways exiting from the anterior horn. This occurs from the spinal cord to the brain, to the front of the central sulcus of the cerebral cortex where the motor and sensory tracts are aligned. In a sense this is the centre of our being.

This sensory-motor unit functions as a “closed feedback loop” system meaning that we cannot act without first sensing and vise versa. This is essential in allowing us to know what we are doing at all times. These feedback loops can also become a negative process, this is the case with the creation of habitual patterns.

Throughout our lifetime the body is continually stimulated with different forms of stress usually caused by, occupation, marriage, children, trauma, surgery, and habitual patterns our nervous system imbue through repetition. Over time, these stresses create a de-sensitization or loss of voluntary control or awareness of our self.

We lose sight of what is taking place on a continual basis within our body and subsequently muscle tissue. This habituation of the startle reflex (stress) can lead to functional changes such as raised and rounded shoulders, depressed chest, forward head carriage, aching knees and thighs, stooped posture.

Habituated landau response can lead to increased lordosis, fatigue, soreness, and pain in the cervical, shoulder, thoracic, lumbar and gluteal regions.

When the trauma reflex becomes habituated, a side flexion posture may be the result.  

As we grow from children to adults, we tend to use the same muscles in the same patterns. This creates habitual patterns causing loss of voluntary control of associated muscular function. The ability to fully contract and elongate muscles back to a normal resting tone is lost. This is termed sensory-motor amnesia.

In sensory-motor amnesia the sensory motor neurons of the voluntary cortex have lost some of their ability to control all or some of the muscles of the body.

Sensory-motor amnesia occurs as a functional deficit whereby the ability to contract muscle groups has been surrendered to subcortical reflexes.

This is to say that the sensory motor impulses have, in a way been re-routed at a lower level in the spinal cord and are no longer under our voluntary control.

Sensory motor amnesia is corrected by a sensory motor process that tells the voluntary cortex what it has ceased sensing and doing. The patient must become sensorially aware of their unconscious, involuntary movement patterns.

The cortex must be sensorially reminded of what it has forgotten, so that it can reawaken and regain full motor control. Once this occurs, habitual reflexes can be interrupted and in a sense re-wired.

An internal process must occur where sensory information is introduced into the sensory-motor feedback loop, allowing the motor neurons of the voluntary cortex to again control the musculature fully and to achieve voluntary relaxation.

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Somatic Technique
Somatics is a way in which we can re-educate the voluntary sensory-motor cortex. Somatics incorporates all physiological principals including isometric contraction, reciprocal inhibition as well as dynamic movement in order to allow chronically contracted muscles to elongate or relax.

A client contracts the problematic muscle in certain firing patterns while sensing the muscle tissue through its full contraction. The patient then senses the elongation of the tissue through its full range. At the same time the client must also be aware of how the movement that is being produced is affecting other areas of the body. This sensory information affects motor control and allows muscles to decrease in tone. Over time, this alters the motor function of affected muscles allowing returned voluntary control.

Somatic movements are different than traditional exercise. Exercises are performed, where somatic movements are experienced or sensed. There is a significant difference.

Achieving a specific range of the movement is a result of regaining voluntary control. Somatic exercise focuses on experiencing what is felt during a movement. We must know for ourselves when enough is enough.

Throughout our lifetimes, people are telling us to do 10 of these or 12 of those. If you follow this program, you will achieve a certain result. What we have to do is trust what we are sensing within our bodies to know when enough is enough. If during somatic movement, spasm or contraction is created in the muscle this is defeating the purpose. You must either slow the movement down or make it more refined. The sole purpose of somatic education is to develop an overall body awareness and restore voluntary control of our musculature. 

I have found that introducing my clients to somatic movements has played a major role in helping them become conscious of problems that may be evolving.  This awareness allows them to change their movement patterns and give damaged tissue a chance to repair itself before becoming chronic and reflexive at an unconscious level.

I hope this article has created food for thought. I believe somatic movements bridge the gap between assessment and treatment. It has changed the way that I look at my client’s dysfunctions as well as my overall treatment protocol with them.


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