As many of you know, I am a pain science nerd in addition to my fascination with Alexander Technique. As you may also know, I like to use my own pain experiences as a learning experience for us all! Every person and every pain experience is unique, but my reflections might help you with your own when pain happens, since if you’re human, you’ll feel it at one time or another.

Recently I had a painful experience in which both Alexander and pain science really helped me. Interestingly, it happened while I was in California for a course on reteaching the nervous system to reduce chronic pain and other “over protections” of the bodily protective response. (Yes, I just finished my masters in pain management and here I was back for more learning!)

Basically, I fell and fractured my elbow. It hurt. My forearm and hand went a bit numb and I had some weird sensations. I could tell my arm didn’t want to move.

Naturally (and I mean this in every sense of the word), I was distressed, anxious and a little scared, too. I was alone in the dark in an unknown city. I’d just hurt my hands and arms, which I work with, so they’re extra important to me. What did this mean? Was my arm broken? I remembered having broken that elbow before. Did I damage a nerve? What if I get persistent pain? What if I can’t work? Maybe I should sue. Should I go to the ER? How much will it cost?

As all these thoughts and feelings came up, I unconsciously tensed muscles to pull in my arm and guard it. Lots of other muscles got involved too, like neck, shoulder and torso muscles. That night and the next day my arm curled into my chest as if on its own seeking protection. I bought a sling and the whole way home the next day I tucked it in to protect it. I recognized that my whole mind-body self was doing a great job of consciously and unconsciously protecting me!

When I got to a doctor in Montana a couple days later, my suspicion of a fracture was confirmed. However, the doctor reassured me that the parts that are likely sprained will heal, and that some impact to a nerve probably made it unhappy. He reassured me that not only is it safe to move my arm, I needed to do that to ensure a healthy, mobile elbow. An anti-inflammatory would reduce the swelling that was contributing to sensitivity and some lingering nerve sensations and numbness. I used to avoid medication as a negative thing, but I’ve learned in my studies of nervous system sensitization and pharmacology that appropriate use of pain medication initially can help to reduce persisting sensitivity.

With that reassurance, I immediately felt some of the protective response slip away. I’m lucky my doctor gave me that advice after an appropriate examination, or caution could easily morph into fear and more protective tightening that could have long-term consequences. I’ve stopped avoiding use of my injured arms and I gradually began moving them. I’m continuing to tune in to my arms and to the rest of my body to not overdo and to adjust my protection levels. Bodily protections easily become habitual, so I’m checking in to see if I’m limiting movement in any unnecessary ways.

Very few situations require us to not move. Muscles like to move, and so do nerves. Nerves like to slide and glide around, they don’t like being constricted in one position. Movement is also reteaching my nervous system that it’s ok to move.

I’m continuing to use what I’ve learned from Alexander and pain management to monitor and reduce overprotection from unnecessary muscle tension and hyperfocus. These kinds of overprotections are natural and helpful, but they lose their helpfulness if they stick around too long. I also understand that how I react to the injury will influence how it evolves. So I continually check back with myself and release what I don’t need, both physically and mentally. I’m using my Alexander Technique directions (messages from brain to body with certain intentions in spatial directions) to reorganize myself and allow my arm to lengthen to free it up rather than contracting and further irritating it.

I’m also learning to be softer and gentler with myself, which is a plus! Another interesting positive consequence is that I’m consciously using other joints that habitually move less. And in our dance class, lots of great nerve glides that I learned at the bodily relearning course are helping too!