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SCIATICA: WHY RELAXATION IS BETTER THAN DRUGS

Although someone who is very stressed may need medication on a temporary basis to get them through a particularly sticky patch, this kind of treatment invariably involves its own risks, including those of potential side-effects as well as the danger of becoming dependent on the drugs. Tranquillisers were commonly prescribed – many experts say overprescribed – to combat stress until quite recently, but doctors are nowadays much more aware of the pitfalls of this approach and are instead choosing more and more to help stressed patients by using various ‘relaxation techniques’.

There are many different types of these techniques, all of them sharing the same broad aim, but seeking to reach their goal in varying ways. Three techniques used frequently – and generally most successfully – to reduce stress that may be exacerbating muscular tension in general and back pain in particular are active relaxation, passive relaxation, and breath control, all of which can be used either individually or in any permutation with the other two.

Relaxation techniques produce tangible benefits in two quite distinct but interconnected ways:

1) They can prevent stress and/or tension from reaching such a point where they cause symptoms to appear.

2) When symptoms, such as sciatica, are already present, relaxation can help reduce them.

While it is not within the scope of this book to go into the various relaxation techniques in depth, there are many other books available that give simple step-by-step instructions. To help you make a start, there follows details of three simple methods for promoting relaxation that many people with back difficulties have found especially useful. First, however, a note of caution is in order: while all of these techniques are normally safe for anyone in reasonably good health, it is just possible that they could lead to an adverse effect under some circumstances. Therefore, should you try any of these methods, stop the exercise immediately if you feel at all uneasy at any time. And, to be absolutely safe, ask your doctor for his advice before you try these.

METHOD ONE – ACTIVE RELAXATION

This is probably the single most useful technique for bringing rapid relief from stress and also has the benefit that it is the most easy to learn and apply. Essentially, it consists of promoting mental relaxation through physical relaxation, the latter being attained through first deliberately tensing muscles and then consciously relaxing them.

Here’s a very basic active relaxation programme which you can adapt as you wish to meet your own needs and circumstances:

Select a time of day when you don’t expect to be interrupted. Lie down flat on your back on the floor, placing a light support – a small cushion or a rolled up towel – under your head.

Extend your legs fully, but spread slightly apart. Your arms should be at your sides, but also spread out slightly.

Clear your mind of all other thoughts and concentrate solely on registering the sensations that will be fed back from various parts of your body as you alternatively contract – that is tense up – and then deliberately relax various muscle groups in your body.

Incidentally, never try to relax a muscle without contracting it first – by contracting the muscle first, you’ll learn to recognise the contrast between a muscle that is tense and one that is fully relaxed. To make sure that a muscle is fully contracted, clench or tighten it hard for at least ten seconds before letting it go fully limp and resting loosely wherever/ it is, supported only by gravity.

This ‘tense it up first, then relax it totally’ procedure is carried out in sequence to extend to every major set of muscles in the body, starting with those that are furthest from your head. This is the sequence recommended by experts to attain the maximum amount of overall relaxation in the shortest time:

Begin with your toes, tensing and relaxing each of them in turn. Then on to the feet, one at a time, then the calves, knees, thighs, and buttocks, alternating between your left and right sides until both your legs are totally relaxed.

Next comes the trunk. Start with the lower abdomen, then the upper abdomen, followed by the lower back, the upper back, the chest and finally the shoulders.

Now do the arms, starting once again with the muscles furthest away from your head. First the fingers, each individually of course, followed by the hands, wrists, forearms, and upper arms.

Finally, it’s the turn of the neck and head. Start with the neck, then the throat and lower jaw, finishing with the face. Contract each section of the face separately – that is chin, lips, cheeks, nose, forehead and eyes in turn.

Once all the muscles in your body are fully relaxed, just lie still for ten minutes or so, enjoying the sensation of physical relaxation while keeping your mind clear of worries or problems.

At the end of your allotted time, get up slowly and deliberately, not abruptly as this could cause the unnecessary contraction of muscles you’ve just relaxed.

Although this routine should ideally be performed daily, this may not always be possible. If so, do the exercise as often as you can, preferably at least three times a week. Incidentally, although it may take you twenty minutes or longer to work your way through the various sets of muscles at first, you will soon find that this speeds up immensely after you’ve done it a few times.

METHOD TWO – PASSIVE RELAXATION

This form of relaxation – also called meditative relaxation -addresses itself directly to your mind as you clear it of extraneous thoughts to concentrate on a single relaxing idea or image.

Passive relaxation will usually be most effective when it immediately follows a session of active relaxation, for example, such as the exercise described directly above. There is no specific position you should adopt for passive relaxation, but it’s obviously important that you be at ease and comfortable, and you could either be sitting or lying down, whatever seems most suitable for you.

Start by spending a moment or two relaxing your body and clearing your mind before going on to the meditative process itself with one of the following methods:

Close your eyes, then evoke a mental image of a place where you’d really like to be. The image you imagine can either be that of a real or totally imaginary place. For example, it could be a warm beach, a sunlit meadow, a mountain top, or whatever strikes your personal fancy. Use your mind’s eyes and explore in depth all the pleasing aspects of this peaceful and wonderful place, absorbing and rejoicing in its sights, sounds and smells as you luxuriate and delight in being there. Eventually, bring yourself gradually back to reality, but hold on to the deep sense of inner peace and calm you experienced as you visited your mental paradise.

While in a relaxed state, look at a previously chosen object you find really pleasing, such as a vase full of flowers, a statuette, or a painting. Bring all your senses to bear fully on this object: your eyes noting its every intricate detail; your hands gently exploring its shape, contours and textures; and your mind responding to the beauty of every pleasing pattern it recognises. Spend a few minutes on this mental inventory, then close your eyes and re-create the object in your mind while you think about all its beautiful aspects.

METHOD THREE – BREATH CONTROL

Both of the two relaxation promoting methods described above can be used most successfully with additional exercises in which you exercise conscious control over your breathing. Breath control can not only help you relax even more deeply, but it also revitalises your whole body by providing it with an extra intake of oxygen that ‘recharges’ your whole organism.

Of the many different kinds of breathing exercises, the single most useful one is the Complete Breath, a technique that comes from ancient Hatha Yoga, that part of Yoga discipline concerned with the control of the physical body. An excellent time to use the Complete Breath is while you’re still lying down after completing a relaxation exercise. Here’s what you do:

Bring your legs and feet together so that they nearly touch, leaving your arms lying loosely at your sides.

Very slowly and deliberately, take in a deep breath and while doing so gradually raise your hands upwards to initially make them meet above your head, then move them back further so that they end up lying straight out behind your head with their palms up.

Now exhale slowly and deliberately, fully emptying your lungs, and as you do so bring your arms back to where they were originally along your sides.

Repeat this procedure up to ten times, making certain that each successive cycle proceeds smoothly into the next one. It’s most important not to hurry this exercise, but to concentrate on making each movement as smooth as possible, letting it flow naturally into the one that follows.

The above are, of course, just a few of the many proven relaxation techniques available. Many more are an essential part of the therapies offered by alternative practitioners, details of which can be found in

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