DEAR DOCTOR K:
A friend mentioned something called the Alexander Technique, which is supposed to help relieve tension. Can you tell me more about it?
I didn’t know much about the Alexander Technique until I received your question. So I did some homework. I consulted with Dr. Eva Selhub, who is an internal medicine doctor and clinical associate at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine.
The Alexander Technique is named for a Shakespearean actor named Frederick Matthias Alexander. In the 1890s, he set out to discover why he often lost his voice when he performed. He realized that onstage, he contracted the muscles in his upper body so strongly that his entire posture changed. He wondered if his voice loss could result from his disrupted posture.
His guess turned out to be correct. When he was able to release the tension in his muscles with a variety of movements, his voice loss resolved. He was also able to change his habit of contracting his neck.
These discoveries have been codified into the Alexander Technique (AT). Today, AT teaches people how to let go of tension in the body. This enables the body to move with ease and minimal effort.
AT is used to treat a variety of conditions, from musculoskeletal pain and breathing problems to voice loss and sleep disorders. Many musicians, dancers, singers and actors use AT to help enhance their performance.
You don’t have to be a performer to benefit. For example, just using your smartphone frequently can cause problems that may benefit from the technique. Here’s what I mean:
Your vertebrae were designed to support your head looking straight ahead. But if you constantly look down to check your smartphone, you are continually straining your large neck muscles. In contrast, you aren’t using your small neck muscles, which are meant to hold up your neck vertebrae. So your vertebrae lose their support. You end up with a stiff, painful neck.
AT can teach you how hold your phone and how to position your head. Ultimately, you will learn to re-establish better posture and ease in your body.
Research supports the use of AT to help treat neck and back pain. One recent study found that AT lessons led to significant reductions in neck pain over 12 months, compared with usual care. Another study found that AT lessons plus exercise helped relieve chronic or recurrent back pain more effectively than standard care or massage.
If you’re interested in AT lessons, the American Society for the Alexander Technique can help you find an instructor. In addition, many complementary and alternative medicine practices have therapists familiar with the technique. If not, they usually can route you to people in your community who can help.
Some doctors have dismissed the Alexander Technique because they label it “alternative” medicine. However, other doctors have subjected it to scientific evaluation — and found it valuable. That’s the more reasonable and constructive approach to any medical practice, when a large number of people have found that it has helped them.