Rolfing Austin: What is Pain and How to Cure It?

Rolfing Structural Integration teaches that the human body is an extraordinary creation of nature’s ingenuity. By erecting the spine vertically in space, placing the pelvis at a horizontal, broadening the feet, and opening the abdomen and ribcage out to the world, nature created the first truly upright creature. However, while humans have the advantage of two free limbs with which they can manipulate the world with exquisite dexterity, they also have the disadvantage of gravity’s constant influence pressing down along their spines.

Looking at most species in the animal kingdom, we find spines that hang horizontally between four separate bases of support. In addition, most creatures experience a constant fluidity and movement in their spines that few humans ever experience. The snake with its undulations, the dog with its wagging tail, the cat with its flexible and balancing spine, the fish with its constant movement through water.

Given the uniqueness of our vertical position in the world, it is no great surprise that we have some very unique structural problems. Back pain is one of those problems and Rolfing Structural Integration aims to understand and resolve the roots of the issues, rather than treating the symptoms.

The Causes of Pain

The causes of pain and its derivatives — such as sciatic nerve pain, pinched nerves in the lower back, middle back pain, shoulder pain, and neck pain — are far more complex than the average therapist or doctor will admit. The human body is a functional system of moving parts. With 206 bones, over 600 muscles, and 45 miles of nerves running through our bodies, we are tremendously complicated.

Rolfers consolidate these complexities by looking at functional assemblies of muscles, bones, and joints that are coordinated along fascial meridians. For example, to a Rolfer, the heel of the foot is connected to the back of the knee. The back of the knee is connected to the hamstrings. The hamstrings are connected to the adductors/quadriceps. The adductors/quadriceps are connected to the pelvis.

The pelvis, and particularly the floor of the pelvis, connects into the lower back. The lower back, in turn gives us clues as to the fluidity of the spine, and the groundedness of the feet. These connections continue on and on and Rolfers are highly trained in structurally assessing clients for the actual causes of their pain.

The Smoke Alarm, the Lightbulb and the Guitar

When people are in acute pain they tend to want someone or something to go directly to the sensation and do something about it. The trouble with this mentality, and the reason why so many surgeries get botched, or don’t help the problem, is because pain is an imperfect messenger. Pain doesn’t tell us what’s wrong, it simply tells us that something is wrong.

It is like a smoke alarm, a lightbulb, or a guitar string.

False Alarms

When a smoke alarm goes off, it typically isn’t located directly at the source of the fire. It’s a way of bringing our conscious attention to the fact that something might be burning. Once we’re conscious of the fact, we can use our eyes, ears, and sense of smell to find the fire and put it out. This is often how pain acts, but there’s a better metaphor for this model. Instead, let’s look at false alarms, which anyone who cooks is probably familiar with.

In the case of false alarms, and specifically in the human body, this means that the system (the brain specifically) is too sensitive. See, pain doesn’t exist outside of the brain. Prior to reaching the brain, a pain signal indicates nothing but an abnormality. It does not indicate an injury, a crisis, or a problem – it just means “not normal.” The brain picks up the signal, compares it to every sensation it’s ever known, and makes a determination on whether or not to set off an alarm.

If it sets off an alarm, we experience “pain,” which is then supported by the physiological response of inflammation. That’s when the body sends little chemicals to an area to inhibit bloodflow, and attack whatever is “wrong.” This response saves lives, no doubt. But it’s also a pain in the butt when there’s nothing anatomically wrong with the system. That’s when we get the “false alarm” that is at the root of many chronic pain issues. The brain simply can’t stop interpreting an “odd” sensation as an “injury.” So it keeps inflaming the area, which is actually a way of the body attacking itself. It’s essentially an auto-immune response.

That’s surprising to many people. But new research in pain science tells us exactly this about pain.

But what if something really is wrong, as is often the case?

The Dimmer Switch

If we want to change the brightness of a lightbulb, we first have to know where to find the dimmer switch. Pain is often just like this. It feels like it’s on one side of the body, but the problem (and the on/off switch) is on the other side. This isn’t that odd if you think about how interconnected the body is. The trouble is that very few people know where to look for on/off switches. I think this is where Rolfers really thrive more than other bodywork practitioners. We can sense into an issue with our fingers and see where the strain pattern seems to be coming from. Sometimes the switch is right where the pain is. But surprisingly often it isn’t. It’s somewhere you really wouldn’t expect it to be. That’s why it can be helpful to have a Rolfer spend a good hour and a half working with your body.

The Sound of Music

Tension – what a beautiful thing. Stringed instruments require tension to create noise. Too tight, and the string snaps. Too loose, and the string is just that – a string. But when it’s just right, we get the sound of music. Oftentimes, pain is the result of strings in the body being wound up too tight. That’s why Rolfing helps us “let go” of what we don’t need to be carrying. But on the other hand, sometimes we’re not wound up quite enough in a particular area. Not having enough organized tension is also cause for structural imbalance. For example, if the back are not strong enough to support upright posture, we may end up slouching forward.

Pain is Not What We Think It Is

Pain is often not what we think it is. It’s usually an encrypted message. Acute pain, like a toe you just banged on a stool, or a blow to the head are different stories. But the pain that emerges longer-term out of those acute moments is what tends to be a little more cryptic. Luckily there’s Rolfing, so we can figure out what’s actually going on with your body.


Kian Fallahi | Certified Rolfer | 4412 Spicewood Springs Rd #402 | Austin, TX | | Schedule Now