- Jean Jordan
How movement helps chronic pain (a painless, different treatment option)
Updated: Jan 21
This blog describes a novel natural treatment for chronic pain patients, simple but effective.
Chronic Pain Treated With Contralateral Movement
These stories include:
- Al unable to do contralateral intentional movement that caused him much frustration.
- Joanne whose left side didn't want to move, likely due to her back pain that started when she was 16 years old caused by her work environment.
- A woman in my chronic pain clinical research whose right arm she never moved, always keeping it in a sling.
Other people's experience with chronic back pain
Sometimes we can benefit from hearing about other people's experience with chronic back pain. In this article I'll describe one of the ways I've developed a new natural therapy as a solution to debilitating constant pain, that many of us live with on a daily basis.
Client's Difficult Story: Forty Years Of Back Pain
This client’s, I'll call her Joanne, back pain started when she was 16 years of age. She had an after-school job that included heavy lifting. Although she never had any specific injury, her back pain slowly got worse, as she had to continue to work.
This was over 40 years ago. Joanne had had constant back pain of varying degrees of intensity during this time. Recently, due to increased back pain she had stopped her regular weekly group dance classes. She could no longer enjoy her social, fun activities.
Some of you may also have found constant pain causes you to start withdrawing from activities you love and hobbies you enjoy. Initially, it may start by only missing an occasional group session or not attending a meeting because you just don't feel, "up to it". Sometimes it can be too difficult to socialise and put on a smiling face when you are hurting so much.
Pain stories can be complex
When I work with people in their 50s or 60s I often find that their pain story may be complicated and not just in one part of their body. This is certainly the case with the people that I'm telling you about today.
Don't Ignore The Emotional Impact Of Stress On Chronic Pain
Joanne told of various occasions she’d injured her back, although those injuries did not individually incur a high level of physical damage. She did recover, physically, but muscle memory of those injuries cannot be dismissed. The emotional impact whenever we are under stress, have an injury, or go through trauma all have an accumulative effect, that can lead to permanent chronic pain. There are examples of this throughout my website, where emotions that arose in the past are released, much of the pain may go with them.
The people I have chosen to talk about have all experienced my treatment called “assisted contralateral movement.”
Before I fully describe the treatment that Joanne underwent I’d like to explain a little bit more about how we move and two different types of movement.
How the body is organised where one side is physically connected to the opposite side of our brain, hence the term contralateral.
Then you need to understand the difference between a passive movement, and an active movement.
Contralateral Movement For Neuroplasticity - Brain Changes
We obviously have two sides to our body, reflective in that we have a right hand and a left-hand and this applies to our ears, our eyes, our feet, legs etc. We also have a left and right hemisphere, two sides to our brain. Although, this may be an over simplification, I hope it will suffice to explain the enormous power to change chronic pain with contralateral movements, both passive and active.
Time for you to stand up and move
If you're reading this article in a place where you can stand up - then stand up.
Then raise your right arm, nice and high, and at the same time lift your left leg off the floor hopefully without falling over.
Now you have effectively woken up the left side of your brain by moving your right arm, then you switched on your right side of your brain by moving your left leg.
Now if you put your arm and leg down and change to the other side you may have noticed that you're effectively walking on the spot, or marching on the spot.
We have an area inside a brain called the homunculus, which is divided up into sections that control or monitor different parts of our body. The bigger your movements the more areas of your homunculus are used, hand, arm, shoulder etc.
Of course, there's going to be a lot of messaging going on between different areas of our brain when we start to move, not just about the homunculus.To describe the contralateral treatment I’ve made a demonstration video.
As you can see in the video I've shown a variety of contralateral movements and it is these movements that I've helped people begin to re-introduce movement, or a bigger range of motion (ROM) into their body both physically and mentally. In this way promoting a whole of body, new natural treatment, for chronic pain. This can often be the first step in reducing, relieving or even moving on to discover a life without pain.
Move Now For Chronic Pain Relief
If you are in a suitable place, such as a quiet place, even sitting on a chair you can start to do some contralateral movement. Depending on your pain level, you may only be able to move right hand and some part of your left foot and then move your left hand and part of your right foot. You can effectively say “I've taken my first step on the road to more movement!”
So smile and congratulate yourself or even give yourself a pat on the back, if you can!
Passive Versus Active Movement Strategies For Chronic Pain Relief
Many of the treatments for chronic pain, nowadays encourage you to move with many physiotherapists giving you exercises to do in the treatment room then to take home and do on a daily basis. My view is that sometimes, your body may not be ready to do exercises (and personally I'm not big on doing exercises regularly myself) as these exercises can be painful.
“And in my book treatment for pain should not be painful. It does not compute!”
Time for another interesting story.
I was in hospital 2009 after major abdominal surgery. I’d had bits of my internal organs removed, consequently I was in a recovery ward lying in bed doing very little. There were two beds in my room mostly with a curtain between them.
Unfortunately, I never met anybody and didn't have anybody to talk to. Behind this curtain people came and went and as there was only a curtain between us I’d sometimes had to hear what was going on.
Specialist examines woman with chronic pain
One day I awoke from my opiate induced drowsiness to hear a specialist and his assistant talking to the lady in the bed next to me. Although I hadn't seen this woman from her voice she sounded an older.
She was obviously having a physical examination due to the fact she was moaning plus, short exclamations prompted obviously by pain. The ward I was in, being for post and pre-orthopaedic operations, one could assume that there was a problem, perhaps with pain in her hips or painful legs. I intuit this as the specialist, the pain specialist surgeon told her to lift her leg.
“I can't lift it"
"Yes you can, just lift your leg"
"But it hurts too much, I can't lift it”
Here is an example of doing an active movement. The pain specialist wanted his patient to lift her leg on own. She was obviously lying down in bed and he was trying to check the range of motion (ROM). This assessment is an obvious thing to do, as he wants to assess how well her leg can move at the same time assessing her pain levels.
The specialist lifts her leg, saying,
"See, I can lift your leg."
I assumed that, due to the groan from the woman, the specialist had lifted her leg thereby showing that she could move her leg, or more correctly her leg could move. Now this is a passive movement.
Interesting as the woman said "I cannot lift my leg". But the pain specialist moved her leg. Her leg could move but something was stopping her from moving her own leg.
As I think back to this time, over 10 years ago, through my work with intentional movements I was very aware of the difference between passive and active movement.
I didn't realise that perhaps the pain specialist had not studied the neurobiology of movement. This is completely understandable especially if it's his job to be a highly qualified surgeon to make adjustments to our physical body to ensure that we could continue to live a full and active life.
Messages from her brain stopped her lifting her leg, as it would be painful!
This experience taught me that we need to consider, or listen to what our patients or clients are saying to us and at the same time listening to the lesson each client has for us as their health practitioner.
So you think contralateral movement is easy?
Some of you reading this and watching the video may just think it's simple, easy to do. Mostly this is the case except, if you are stressed it’s easy to go "homolateral" just using one side of your body.
In one of my first intentional movement presentations I was gaily smiling, explaining contralateral movement, which I thought I was demonstrating. Only to have someone in the audience tell me otherwise. "But Jean you are moving the same arm and leg"!
When Contralateral Movement Is Impossible
Now time for Al's story. He is an amputee who lost his leg from below the knee many years ago. When I first met Al he was suffering excessive stress and pain his brain function and mental health had been challenged for many years.
During many weeks of consultations, his frustration with being unable to start moving contralaterally, whilst lying on a massage table, was palatable. He got so cross! But he kept trying, it took time but he got there in the end together with many other changes. (Al reflects on his treatment with me)
Brain is stuck in one-sided movement.
Remember, it's the process to be able to stop, pause, and restart this intentional contralateral movement that creates changes. As shown in the video earlier in the article. Generally when we start to move in a walking motion or stepping forward we will have a favoured hand or foot that will initiate the movement. It creates more of a challenge when I remove the option of starting with your preferred dominant hand. Perhaps you should stand up and try it now!
How to improve the general, natural movement of a person in chronic pain.
To best illustrate the use of this technique to improve the movement of those with chronic pain, another story, perhaps? The initial consultation was with a 56-year-old woman. This woman was part of my kinesiology clinical research thesis that I did as part of my training in 2006. When Mary (not her real name) came into the room accompanied by her daughter, she held her right arm as if it was in a sling, supporting it with her left hand. She couldn't move her right arm from this position without pain; therefore she seldom straightened this arm and it was always painful, as was much of her body.
Note: always check with your doctor or pain specialist before attempting this passive activity.
How We Used Passive, Contralateral Movement
The ongoing experience of Mary was difficult to believe. Her daughter, and myself stood each side of her as she lay on the massage table, both level with her thighs, alternatingly lifting her legs. At first her legs were very heavy, without the ability to totally relax, or switch off, to allow passive movement. Her arms were at her side and she started to move them, with full movement of her left arm but only small movements of her hand on her injured side.
Progression of Mary's pain less movement.
Mary lies face up, on the massage table.
One person either side of her level with her thighs.
Mary's arms were down by her side.
One person lifts one of her legs, while Mary moved opposite arm as much as possible, without inducing any pain.
Other person lifts her other leg while Mary moved the opposite arm.
We continued, slowly lifting alternate legs.
Actual contralateral process, of passive movement.
Initially Mary only moved her fingers on her injured arm.
Her legs were difficult for us to move due to her inability to switch off or relax the muscles in her legs.
First change we noticed was a softening of her legs that made it easier for us to lift them.
There was increased movement in her injured arm, without pain.
As we continued lifting her legs she gained almost full active movement in both arms.
We could also sense some assisted movement (instigating active movement) as muscles in her legs switched on.
Final outcome of treatment
After our contralateral movement treatment Mary got down from the massage table and both arms moved normally as she walked back to her chair. Her family continued to do the contralateral assisted movement at home. Later a follow-up appointment continued with the good news.
A word of warning to this story
However, there is a word of warning to this story. Mary had a large Italian family and enjoyed cooking for them and that was exactly what she did after going home following her first successful treatment with me. A bit too much too soon! She learnt that she needed to give her body time to make changes and to recondition her muscles to regain full, active, pain-free movement.
How Contralateral Movement Can Help Chronic Pain
After doing many contralateral natural assisted movement treatments with clients that need to start with passive movement (me or a relative moving their limbs) to active movement (they move their own limbs), generally and also advisedly without pain, I am unable to fully explain the drastic change this treatment brings about.
Perhaps: Questions to ponder?
Could our brains "forget" our normal movement patterns after a period of "favouring" or holding our body in a particular manner?
Is this a protection mechanism, the brain and nervous system not allowing movement to prevent injury? As in the case of the lady and the pain specialist?
Could muscles become so de-conditioned that initial movement, against gravity lying on a massage table, is just too difficult or not properly innervated - meaning signals from the brain are not getting through?
Whenever I use this movement therapy with chronic pain clients, there is still a great pleasure in the amazing changes that take place with what seems such a simple technique.
Simple mindful movements for chronic musculoskeletal pain
I believe simple movement remedies can be the new pain relief therapy able to be used in a variety of ways and levels of difficulty. These contralateral movements for pain relief have to be done in a mindful or thoughtful way.
“If you don’t think, i.e.be mindful, by including your mind – it goes wrong!”
This article is the personal opinion of the author, Jean Jordan who is a natural therapist who works online with people who have chronic pain and related stress and anxiety.
Learn more about Jean and discover her philosophy and holistic approach