Does the Alexander Technique really cure back pain?

WHAT are we to make of this week's news that the complementary therapy Alexander Technique is an effective treatment for long-term back pain, better than painkillers, physiotherapy, massage or exercise alone? The findings came in an authoritative study in the British Medical Journal.

Chronic back pain can be soul-destroying. With pain researchers increasingly convinced of the importance of psychological, as well as physical, factors in producing pain, what's also becoming evident is that approaches that address only the physical aren't as effective as those that influence our feelings too.

It seems amazing that little more than a decade ago, rest and painkillers were still standard treatment for back pain. In the past 20 years research has consistently shown that active approaches - when the patient takes responsibility for exercise - are far more effective than passive ones. It has gone on to show that approaches that give detailed attention to an individual and tailored treatment - such as osteopathy and physiotherapy - are more effective than off-the-peg approaches.

But more recently, as good-quality research studies have been conducted into complementary techniques, the possibility has arisen that yoga and the Alexander Technique hold benefits beyond manipulation and exercise. It has something to do with our minds.

The theory behind the Alexander Technique may be hard for medics to take because it revolves around simultaneously releasing emotional and physical stresses by improving posture. But it may be in this difficult mind-body link that its success lies. This means that, for all the benefits shown by research, it may be a while before it is available on the NHS.

So what are you to do if you want to try the technique? Since the report came out, the organisation for Alexander Technique training has reported a huge public demand for details of teachers (Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique There are only 900 in England, and most of these are in the SouthEast.

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