Have you ever injured yourself, then found yourself moving other parts of you in odd ways so as to compensate for the injured part? Perhaps you found yourself tensing muscles around the injury in order to prevent movements that cause pain? It’s a very human response, but sometimes compensatory movements cause more problems than they prevent. This is a post about how I know this to be true. It also contains a tip or two for how to deal with the problem.
Compensatory movements: autobiography
Last week I injured a muscle in my right shoulder. For a number of days the injury was so bad that I could barely move my head. I even took anti-inflammatories – it’s rare for me to resort to painkillers, but on this occasion it was necessary. And a week later, it still isn’t better.
When I met up with a colleague earlier this week, she did some hands-on Alexander Technique work with me, and found that I’d been tightening pretty much every muscle in my shoulder girdle on both sides in order to try and deal with the pain. With her help, I started to loosen off some of the tension.
The pain got worse in the injured area. Then everything felt markedly better.
Compensatory movements are different to the injury
Why did my symptoms improve, even though Alexander Technique does not (and cannot) deal directly with injuries?
It’s important to remember that there is a difference between an injury and our reaction to it. I think we’ve all had the experience of hurting ourselves – perhaps spraining an ankle – and then moving differently in order to avoid putting pressure on the injured area and causing ourselves pain (and possibly further injury). We indulge in compensatory movements, usually to avoid further hurt and upset.
Unfortunately, our compensatory movements aren’t always rational or reasonable. Worse than that, they aren’t reasoned, and fall into the category of what FM Alexander would call ‘specific treatment’ which doesn’t take into account the general working of a person’s whole body:
It is in the nature of unity that any change in a part means a change in the whole, and the parts of the human organism are knit so closely into a unity that any attempt to make a fundamental change in the working of a part is bound to alter the use and adjustment of the whole … any attempt to eradicate a defect otherwise than by changing and improving this faulty concerted use is bound to throw out the balance somewhere else. 
The injury makes one set of adjustments to the working of the whole body. If we then generate compensatory movements and throw those into the mix, we can have no idea of what effect all of these will have on the condition of our general use of ourselves.
As I said, compensatory movements are likely to be rational or reasoned, they are almost certainly specific ‘fixes’, and sometimes they can cause us more discomfort than the original injury! I think every Alexander Technique teacher could tell stories of students who had created elaborate movement strategies that ultimately were detrimental to the student’s wellbeing, even though the student had created them from the best of intentions.
So what do we do to avoid making ourselves feel worse?
- Let yourself be injured. Don’t try to ‘muscle through’ activities.
- Think about range of motion and alternative movements. You will be tempted to throw lots of muscular tension at your problem to prevent movement of the injured part and avoid pain. Better to know what ranges of motion you can use safely, and find alternative ways of doing things. For me, this has meant getting much better at using my left arm!
- Make an effort to think about your head-body relationship. If Alexander is right and our general condition of use is fundamental to our wellbeing, then spending time thinking about this relationship will help to ease any tension we may have unwittingly created by compensating for the injury.
I’ve found since meeting with my colleague that if my shoulder is particularly painful, I need to do a quick check of myself. What am I doing with my head in relation with my body? Am I letting my arms be optional add-on structures, or am I pulling them in towards my midline? And then, if I think about leaving my neck and shoulder muscles alone, the pain rapidly gets worse and then much better.
 FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.54.
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