A new study has proved the technique works best for relieving tension, reports Maria Fitzpatrick
If you're slouching over your newspaper, this should make you sit up straight: finally, we've found a cure for chronic back pain - and it doesn't involve painkillers, surgery or uncomfortable manipulation.
The Alexander Technique could potentially help thousands of people plagued by back pain Rather, the answer lies in a simple, yet powerful, therapy that's more than 100 years old.
Research published last week in the British Medical Journal revealed that the Alexander Technique - which works on releasing muscle tension to improve posture, alignment and movement - is significantly more effective at reducing chronic or recurrent back pain than typical GP-prescribed treatment.
Trials on 463 patients found that those who were prescribed 24 lessons in the Alexander Technique (along with exercise) experienced only three days of back pain in a month, compared with 11 days in patients who received six lessons, 14 days in the group who had regular massage, and 21 days in those given standard GP care (painkillers, often coupled with exercise).
The practice was originally devised in the 1890s and introduced in Britain in 1904 by Frederick Matthias Alexander, an Australian actor. Alexander had problems with a hoarse voice, which he attributed to nervous tension in his body before performing.
He believed that we "translate everything, whether physical, mental or spiritual, into muscular tension" and that the resulting poor posture compresses the neck and spine.
The technique he developed is, according to expert Joe Searby, "a set of simple, practical mental and physical skills, tailored to the individual", and it has garnered a large following worldwide, with Sting, Madonna and Sir Paul McCartney all reportedly believers. But until now, there was limited clinical evidence of its benefits.
However, this new large-scale study, funded by the Medical Research Council and the NHS, could bring relief to the millions of people - estimated at half the UK population - who suffer regularly from back pain. Fifteen per cent of those develop chronic problems, at a cost of £5 billion to the economy each year.
The technique aims to heighten awareness of the body, equipping patients to use it more efficiently, releasing tension, preventing injury and correcting existing musco-skeletal problems. It also can lead to improved circulation, pain relief, reduced anxiety and improved sleep.
"You're using conscious thought to free tension from the body and 'retrain' the musculature of your spine, neck and head," explains Searby, who runs a private practice in Oxfordshire, as well as working at the Constructive Teaching Centre in Holland Park.
But it's not an instant cure, rather a long-term adjustment. "We're used to expecting a 'quick fix' for pain," he adds. "But this technique is like learning the piano. People often feel some positive effects after one lesson - but keeping it up is crucial."
A 10-MINUTE TASTE OF THE TECHNIQUE
Joe Searby asked me to stand in front of my chair facing straight ahead, shoulders soft, and to think of my spine as a long spring. He explained that my head, weighing 10-11lb, was pushing down on that spring, compressing it.
Two-thirds of the head's weight is distributed in front of the ears, meaning that, naturally, it should move slightly forwards. But when the muscles of the neck are tense, they contract, drawing the head backwards and down, and pulling extra weight on to the spine.
Searby used his hands to straighten the small of my back and my shoulders, before putting his hands on either side of my neck. He asked me to become conscious of how it felt. I was aware of tension in my shoulders; my neck felt heavy and warm.
He told me to "order" my neck muscles not to do anything (this is different from relaxing: relaxing makes you naturally droop). As I told them not to tense, my neck felt even heavier.
Searby was guiding my posture so that I didn't sag; he then asked me to "send a message" to my head to project its weight forwards and upwards, as if releasing it away from my body and tell my neck muscles to lose their stiffness and "elongate".
He said my neck should be starting to feel more elastic and my shoulders to soften, and that this might feel uncomfortable because I was beginning to release long-held tension.
He asked me to imagine my body as a concertina: folding up easily, bending at the knees and at the hips. With one gentle movement from him, I was sitting in my chair. I have never been so graceful in my life. MF
• For more information, go to http://www.stat.org.uk/
• 'Alexander Technique' by Joe Searby (Duncan Baird) is available from Telegraph Books for £4.99 + 99p p&p. Call 0870 428 4115 or go to books.telegraph.co.uk