I recently came across “Back Pain Myths“ via pilatestree.com, from a website called ‘Better Movement’, and a review of Kelly Starrett’s book ‘Becoming a Supple Leopard’ from a website called ‘Exercise Biology’, that both use science, or the absence of it, to question, or indeed attack, the beliefs and practices of many practitioners working within the sphere of exercise and rehabilitation. Somehow it feels as though this is a popular subject at the moment.
To paraphrase outrageously, the thrust of these is that if scientific studies cannot be found to support an idea, the idea must be wrong. “Back Pain Myths: Posture, Core Strength, Bulging Discs” (to give it its full title) sets out to show that anyone who has suggested that poor posture, lack of core strength, or bulging discs are a likely cause of someone’s back pain has not kept up with the science, and is barking up the wrong tree. (More about ‘Back Pain Myths’ in a post to follow). Our man at Exercise Biology levels the same accusation at Starrett: “He is literally taking your hand and walking you back to the dark ages of physical therapy of the 1950’s, when we used to believe pain comes from joint, tissues, bad posture and movement.” (Good thing that the OED had revised the definition of ‘literally’ to include ‘metaphorically’ as one of its meanings). To be fair, the book’s subtitle: ‘The Ultimate Guide to Resolving Pain, Preventing Injury, and Optimizing Athletic Performance’, leaves Starrett open to this kind of critique (if you are deliberately obtuse and overlook the fact that the book is manifestly about all three things combined, and not just resolving pain).
I don’t suppose that it will be news to many of us in the Pilates world that the causes and manifestation of pain are complex areas, and that there is strong evidence that people can have, for example, multiple disc bulges and no pain. Many of us may be familiar with the work of Butler and Moseley, who wrote the excellent ‘Explain Pain‘, and will know that (oversimplified) pain is a sensation produced by our brain, based on information it has received from somewhere in the body, that it has filtered through near enough every sensory input (physical experience, anecdotes heard, films watched etc) it’s ever received. Small wonder that experience of pain seems so highly individualised.
The International Association for the Study of Pain defines pain as: “An unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage.” So, the role of pain is to alert us to the likely need to change our behaviour, which seems pretty straightforward, and supports the idea that a poor position could indeed trigger a pain response. Of course, it is complicated, especially in the realm of chronic pain, and when someone experiences pain with no identifiable symptoms. Whilst I am familiar with, at least some (Butler/Moseley), current pain theory, I’m not ready to dismiss the possibility that how someone moves and holds themselves may have a bearing on the inputs that their brain receives. According to Anoop Balachandran (Mr Exercsie Biology), who is a fan of the ‘biopsychosocial’ model of pain, the biomechanics (usually termed PSB: postural-structural-biomechanical) model of pain “is now outdated, unscientific and incomplete..” Incomplete it may be, but if someone has pain that is clearly mechanically derived, and resolves the pain by changing their mechanics, that can’t be dismissed. (Nor would it somehow serve to disprove the idea that there is a valid biopsychosocial model of pain).
I don’t want to give into what may be flawed logic, but I’m sure that many of us will have seen the positive outcomes achieved by helping people to understand and change poor posture or movement patterns. I have no studies to fall back on to prove it, and accept the fact that we cannot prove that Pilates, for example, works. A solution that appears simple can still be a solution. Balachandran writes: “I wrote an article back in 2005 about the myth of posture and pain and ended the article saying “Now close your eyes, take a deep breath, slowly slump – and savor the freedom of movement”.” He ‘knows’ that this is a sound thing to be saying, because no-one has yet conducted a study that can show conclusively that there is a relationship between posture and pain. I ‘know’ that it’s a ridiculous statement, because I’ve never seen anyone moving well, or freely, from a slumped position. I know that I went from being a chronic pain sufferer, to being pain-free because I learned better movement patterns, and better positioning strategies. I know that my joints fitting together as well as possible, and the surrounding soft tissues being supple and elastic will help me to avoid dysfunction – and I’m positive that, pain or no pain, that’s a good thing. To quote him again: “The more you talk about biomechanics, joints and movements, the more you are raising the threat level in the brain and making the pain chronic. This is exact reason why current pain science involves educational sessions to change people’s belief about the role of their muscles and joint in pain. Just changing the beliefs about pain has been now shown to lower pain, disability score and improve ROM and movement.” It may be that my beliefs about pain were changed during the first year or so that I took Pilates classes, I’ve no way of knowing that. It may be that counselling would have had a similar result, but we cannot prove it either way. A movement practice, and the changes in habit that followed, in my experience, resolved my back problem. I don’t need to prove whether it was a mental or physical change – it’s not provable – and it doesn’t matter. The practice was empowering to me in some way, maybe many ways, and that’s all that matters.
Ironically, Balachandran refers his readers to this interview, which is fascinating, and also includes the affirmation that Balachandran’s beloved BPS (bio-psycho-social) model of pain actually incorporates the PSB model of pain that he derides, as we saw above, as “unscientific” and “outdated”. His scathing review of ‘Becoming a Supple Leopard’ hinges on it being unscientific – given that Starrett doesn’t mention BPS, and that there is “no single scientific reference...” included. Ah, SCIENCE, the trump card. Balachandran makes it clear on his blog that he favours an ‘evidence-based’ approach to fitness. I believe that the only evidence that can be considered to prove anything comes from a randomised, double-blind study. I’m given to wonder what exercise we can undertake whose efficacy has been proven by studying groups of people, chosen at random, some of whom are undertaking the exercise without being aware of it, and supervised by people who don’t know who’s exercising and who isn’t. Thus, if he’s not basing his exercise on anecdote or observation, he is probably not exercising very much.
I’m not seeking to defend Starrett particularly (though I do think that BASL is a very useful resource), but a superficial reading makes it clear that the primary subject is pain that can be related to movement dysfunction, and that the evidence that he bases his work on is the success that it appears to have over his years of practice as a coach and physio. Isn’t it the case, in the realm of fitness (movement), that anecdote and observation are as reliable evidence of the value of a practice as any other kind?
Efforts to increase our understanding of how the human body works must be helpful, and science doubtless has much still to teach us. Particularly if we are working with people who have long-term chronic pain (especially that which doesn’t appear to have any biomechanics cause), it is helpful to have some understanding of the complexities of the biology of pain. That should not equal throwing the baby out with the bath water.
Starrett’s tagline for his work, attached to all the free material that he published to the internet long before the book, is “All human beings should be able to perform basic maintenance on themselves”. Listening to him it’s easy to believe, financial rewards aside, that he is motivated to try to make a positive difference to people’s lives – to make the world a better place. Perhaps those of us in the Pilates teaching profession all share that same desire.
Is the motivation to write a review of this book (which carries an implicit critique of any of us who’s work is often centred on the PSB model of pain) the desire to educate, to advance debate, or the desire to build a reputation?