Short Summary of Neck/Back Pain and the Red Light Reflex

  • Neck and back pain is caused by tight muscles in the front of the body; it is not caused by having “weak back muscles.”
  • Telling someone to “stand up straight” does not change how their brain communicates with their muscles; neither does physically pulling their shoulders back. 
  • The only way to change your posture is by sensing your short muscles and then lengthening them through pandiculation.
  • Clinical Somatics is the most effective way to reverse kyphosis and change your posture.
  • The startle response, or red light reflex, happens automatically when we feel afraid or stressed.
  • A habituated startle response puts you more at-risk for serious health problems, including stroke or heart attack.

I have experienced pain in my mid-back since I was a teenager.  I regularly saw a chiropractor, who informed me one of my legs was longer than the other (that will be a whole other blog post), would pop my hips back into place, do some other adjustments on my back and neck, and send me on my way. At the time, I just accepted this diagnosis. I always wondered why I couldn’t have better posture, but I knew it hurt for me to “stand up straight,” a phrase I heard often growing up.

Lisa, stand up straight,” as some well-meaning adult pulled my shoulders back. Of course this didn’t work, and all the “you need to strengthen your back” talk did not help either.  That is because it is a myth that rounded posture is caused by weak back muscles.  

It was not until last year I experienced something that truly helped my back pain disappear: Clinical Somatics. After my first few times doing a few simple, slow movements, I realized I could control and eliminate my back pain. Now, whenever I find myself responding to stress and feel that back pain creeping across my thoracic spine, I simply do a few somatic movements and it goes away. My back pain is dissipating and becoming less and less frequent.

So, what causes mid-back pain and neck pain?

It is really quite simple, actually. When your abdominal muscles and the other muscles of your front are tight, your ribcage gets pulled down towards the pubic bone; the pubic bone is pulled upwards towards the ribcage.  The shoulders then round forward, and the head protrudes forward, chin slightly pointing up. Look at the picture below of kyphosis developing over time. Notice the tilting of the ribcage downwards, the shift in the collarbones, and the change in position of the shoulder girdle. 

The kyphotic posture is often associated with aging and senility.  But the truth is, kyphosis and the head sitting forward on top of the spine is a learned response to stress. You can unlearn your damaging motor patterns contributing to this posture. 

This is all an automatic response to the startle response, in Somatics we call this the red light reflex.  When we are fearful or anxious, our nervous system instantaneously reacts by contracting our musculature.  We contract in the front of the body, to protect our vital organs.  Next time you are startled, notice what happens immediately. 

  1. Your eyes begin to narrow, sharpening focus on the potential danger ahead.
  2. The jaw muscles contract
  3. The upper trapezius muscles contract, bringing your head forward as your shoulders raise upwards.  
  4. There is adduction of the upper 6 ribs of the chest, as they pull inwards towards the center
  5. This is followed within milliseconds by the contraction of the rectus abdominus, the long muscle from your pubic bone to your sternum

This list goes on, as the neural impulses continue to move down your body.  Your inner thigh muscles, the adductors, tighten and pull your legs inward. The knees and ankles roll forward. Your entire body is pulling towards the center, in an effort to protect itself.  

The picture below highlights some of the muscles first triggered to contract in the startle response.

Image by Colm McDonnell

1. Rectus Abdominus (abdominals), 2. Intercostals, 3. External Obliques,
Internal Obliques, 5. Pectoralis Minor, 6. Pectoralis Major

When you have neck and back pain, your abdominal muscles are contracted (short) and tight; the intercostal muscles cannot expand when you breathe – they should open gently on the inhale; your internal and external obliques pull the ribcage down and often are more contracted on one side (the trauma reflex); and your pecs are very tight, pulling your head down and rounding the shoulders forward.

Thomas Hanna, the creator of Clinical Somatics, even says depression is a habituated startle reflex.  According to the Somatic viewpoint, your brain cannot differentiate between emotional, physical, or mental stress; stress is stress and your nervous system responds and then adapts. 

Your nervous system is plastic, meaning just like the brain, it is constantly responding to life and learning new motor patterns to adapt to stimuli.

Unfortunately the red light reflex, if left unattended, has serious consequences. Having chronically contracted, tight muscles in the front of your body increases your risk for:

  1. Stroke
  2. Heart attack
  3. Blood vessel bursts
  4. Shallow breathing, including hyperventilation
  5. High blood pressure

What movements can I do to relieve the effects of the Red Light Reflex?

Practicing Somatics daily will teach your nervous system to release the habitually contracted muscles in the front of the body.

The Arch and Flatten, the Arch and Curl, and the Flowering Arch and Curl will dramatically change the way you feel your shoulders, neck, back, and chest. This new sensory feedback your brain receives will change how your brain holds your muscles, meaning the muscles of your front will lengthen and relax.

Try the Arch and Flatten:

  1. Lie down on your back, feet planted behind sit-bones about hip-width distance apart, knees upright
  2. Breathe gently into your belly; take a few breaths in this way
  3. On your inhale, gently roll your pelvis forward (towards your tailbone), arching your lower back and let the chin roll towards the chest, count to 8 as you slowly release to neutral **repeat this a few times
  4. From neutral, inhale gently, on the exhale, flatten your low back down into the floor, engaging the abdominal muscles, let your chin move up towards the ceiling, count to 8 as you slowly release to neutral **repeat this a few times

I will be posting videos soon to introduce these movements to you! So, stay tuned.  🙂  In the meantime, if you want to learn more, I do offer Skype sessions!