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Spontaneous Release by Positioning: First Aid for Your Back

Back Care First Aid


We're all ignorant, just on different subjects.
(Will Rogers)

 One of the handiest techniques for putting slightly out-of-place vertebrae back into line (or "putting your back in") is called spontaneous release by positioning. The technique was developed by Dr. Lawrence Hugh Jones, a Canadian doctor of osteopathy (D.O.). Dr. Jones published his technique in The D.O., January 1964, pp. 118-125.  It is a very effective, non-invasive procedure that most anyone can learn and use.

(Important caution: Common sense dictates the need of genuine care in dealing with any back problem.  Consult a medical, osteopathic or chiropractic doctor before proceeding with this, or any other self-care approach.)

 The very first time I had occasion to require spontaneous release was during the time I was taking a short course in how to do it. I really wasn't at all convinced of the value of the technique until it was used on me. This is so often the way, isn't it? One day I stepped off the curb to cross a street and suddenly felt my back give way and my leg get weak. I must have moved just right... or should I say, just wrong... and it threw my lower back out severely. I tried assorted exercises at home to try to correct it, but none worked. It was painful in the big muscles of the lower back, the lumbar area, and I couldn't do anything about it. So the next class, I asked the instructor to use me as the example of the day. 

 I was told to relax, was rolled up into a ball with my leg up under my chest in an odd but strangely comfortable position. I knew that the teacher was pressing a trigger point aside my lower vertebra, but I only knew he was pressing the point because he told me he was, and I looked and saw it.  But I felt no pain at all in this position, and believe me, that was amazing after the great discomfort I'd been having. A couple of minutes of relaxation passed, and he brought my posture back to normal. The pain was gone, and it did not return. I rested a moment and got up and about again.  I've been successfully employing spontaneous release ever since because it is both gentle and it works so well.                                    

 "Spontaneous release" is another phrase for ''nature cured it" when applied to your back.  Occasionally a slightly displaced vertebra will slip back into place on its own.  An unusual sleeping position or a chance movement can return a vertebra to its place, though not quite as easily as it can be put "out."  This spontaneous realignment of the spine is not to be confused with "learning to live with it" or any other mere toleration of the aches or pains resulting from misplaced bones. It is one thing for the body to compensate for a problem, and quite another for the body to actually correct the problem. 

 So why is a technique needed at all if the body corrects itself?  First of all, spontaneous release rarely occurs on its own. It would be nice if it did, but legions of backache patients prove otherwise. It seems easier for a bone to go out than to go in, in the same manner that it's easier to break a watch than fix it, or easier to scramble an egg than to put it back together again. When a bone goes out, the surrounding muscles also are affected.  Dr. Jones explains this well in his paper. It seems that once the bone is out, the tendency of the muscles is to hold its new position. It's only through a unique position coupled with muscle relaxation that the bone can slip back into place almost unnoticed.

This is precisely what "spontaneous release by positioning" seeks to accomplish: this technique recreates the circumstances in which the bone went out, to encourage it to replace itself of its own accord. You are recreating the body's posture or position that put the vertebra out in the first place.  It's like retracing your steps looking for your lost car keys.

 By carefully positioning a person's arms or legs up or down, back turned this way or that, hips or neck pivoted right or left, a patient with even severe back pain is found to all at once find a comfortable position, a position where there is no pain or almost no pain.  It may be quite an odd-looking position, but the discomfort is eased or completely gone. This is the posture that encouraged the bone to go out in the first place; now we'll use the same position to encourage the bone to return.

 You can always tell when you've discovered the correct position because the patient will be comfortable. The person previously may have been barely able to sit, walk or stand up, but when you have the correct position the person will be at ease even though, in fact because, the body is in an odd posture. The very posture that put the initial strain on the back is now taking the strain off the back. Says Dr. Jones:

 Even the severest lesions will readily tolerate being returned to the position in which lesion formation originally occurred, and only to this position.  When the joint is returned to this position, the muscles promptly and gratefully relax. These joints do not cause distress because they are crooked; they are paining because they are being forced to be too straight. This is the mechanism of strain. (p 119)

In other words, the muscles are "used" to the strain, and contract to hold the bone out of place. When the person tries to straighten up, the bones won't, because the muscles won't let them. And, the muscles won't relax because the bones are out of alignment. That is why heating pads, rubs, medicines and "learn to live with it" do not solve the problem. Because those approaches do not reposition the bone, the muscle cannot relax to normal. That's why there's pain.

 How to eliminate the pain? Reposition the bone back to normal. How then to reposition the bone(s) to normal? Reposition the person's body to the extreme but now comfortable posture so the muscles will relax. Dr. Jones says you then hold the person in that position, as the person relaxes, for 90 seconds.  Then, still relaxing, the person is brought back around slowly to a normal posture. It is found that the bone that was out returns with the rest of the spine to normal position.  

 To better find exactly which vertebrae are out, and also to demonstrate to yourself that the bones do in fact realign and pain does in fact disappear, it may be helpful to utilize what are called "trigger points" along the spine.  Looking at the back one can see the spinal column as a stack of bumps.  To either side of this vertebral spine will be a trigger point.  The distance out from the bump will be about one to two inches.  Dr. Jones describes specific trigger locations in detail in his paper, and tells how to use them individually. 

 As we said earlier, nerves emerge from between the vertebrae in your back. Each vertebra has side projections, like wings, and a rear-facing spine which you see as the "teacup handle" or bump.  If a given vertebra is misaligned, the nerve or musculature on one or both sides of that bone will be tender.  This is, as we have said, because the bone's somewhat twisted condition puts pressure on the nerve emerging to each side of it. Therefore, if you press there, it may hurt quite a bit. That's how you can tell which bones are out. Gently go up and down the spine and press lightly about one inch out to either side of each vertebral spine or "bump." Where there's pain, that's where the nerve is under pressure, where the muscle is locking, and where the bone is out. And that's the trigger point for that bone.
 It is likely that you will find one side of the vertebra to be more tender than the other. What one does in that case is keep pressing lightly on the tender spot while repositioning the person.  When the correct position is reached, the person will say that he no longer feels pain even though pressure is still being applied on the trigger point. This is positive proof that you've found the right trigger point and that you've found the right position. What I do then is be sure the person is relaxing. I hold the position, while pressing the trigger point, for about between 90 seconds and three minutes, and then bring the person back to normal posture while continuing to press the trigger point. If you've corrected the problem, the person will not feel discomfort, and will not feel pain even though you continue to press the trigger point that hurt him before you started.

Summary of the steps of spontaneous release by positioning:
1.) Find the right trigger point by gently pressing to each side of each vertebra. Pain indicates the trigger point.

2.) While pressing that point, begin to reposition the person, asking him to tell you when the pain stops.

3.) When a comfortable position is reached, continue pressing the trigger point while holding the person in the unusual position that he himself has indicated to you by cessation of pain.

4.) Be sure the person is relaxed if you want this to be successful. You must hold the position, not the patient. If the patient holds the position, he is using the very muscles that you are seeking to relax. If the patient is not relaxed, the technique will not work.  

5.) After1 1/2 minutes or so, you return the person to a normal posture while continuing to press the spot.

6.) If the person feels better and the trigger point pressure no longer hurts, then the bone is back in its proper place.

Step-by-step suggestions:
 On step 1.) The person's back should be uncovered. Some people will tell you of pain with only the lightest pressure to the trigger point. With other cases, you may have to press fairly hard in finding the spot. Very muscular persons often require more pressure. Persons in great pain often require but a touch.  I once worked on a relative whose back was in such excruciating pain that just a washcloth's pressure when taking a bath hurt him greatly. After half an hour of spontaneous release by positioning he was so much improved that I could press those same spots on his back until my fingernails were white. There is real relief for you!

 On step 2.) Be sure to ask the person to tell you if a given trial position is better, worse, or the same.  Some people won't tell you if you're helping them or hurting them, so ask!  Ask constantly, "Better, worse, or the same?" "Better, worse, or the same?" If you're working on the neck, the person may begin in a sitting position.  If you are working on the upper or middle back, the person might sit, or it may be easier to lie face down.  For the lower back, the person may lie down on their side or face down.  Start symmetrically, and end symmetrically; that is, sit or lie straight to begin, and always end up straight with no crossed legs or slouching.

 On step 3.) The only comfortable position for the patient may be very unusual or extreme, and that's common. The person may be in no pain at all only when rolled up like a ball, or twisted one leg over the other, or with their head pointed out and up with the chin in the air, or with their arm bent back over their shoulder! You just have to try any position until you get the sure sign that you've found the right one: No more pain, where you are pressing or anywhere else in the patient.

 On step 4.) Dr. Jones mentions that ''patients will try to help you. Don't let them." This is because spontaneous release by positioning is and must remain totally passive on the part of the patient, and all he or she can do to help is to say when the pain is gone, and relax. That is it.

 After the procedure, the person worked on should rest for a while, and later endeavor to keep good posture while resting or working. This is important, because the bone replaced is most likely to slip back out of place if again offered the extreme position that did it before.

 On step 5.) The length of time that you have to hold the position will vary with each situation. Experience best shows how you can be the judge.
 On step 6.) With spontaneous release by positioning, as with math, you can always check your work. The trigger point that hurt when you pressed it showed you which vertebra was out; the trigger point when pressed with the person in the correct posture no longer hurt, so it showed you the correct position; the trigger point when pressed throughout the rotation of the person back to normal position no longer hurts, either, and shows you that the release was accomplished.

 So we can see the value of positioning, relaxation, and trigger points. These three form the basis of this technique.

 You can try spontaneous release by positioning yourself, but not on yourself. If you try to position yourself, you will not be the necessary passive, relaxed patient.  You can not have relaxed muscles if you are using them. You must exert force to position your limbs, or to press trigger points. You can either relax a muscle or use a muscle; you cannot do both together. This is why it is good to teach family members this technique: you may be the one needing it at some point.  If everyone learns, then you can help each other. When I did farm work, with much reaching, lifting, pulling and carrying, my wife did spontaneous release by positioning on me almost every day. But she had her turn: when she was pregnant, particularly during the eighth and ninth months, I had to put her back in as much as twice a day. This prevented the considerable back discomfort that so many women complain of during pregnancy due to the extra weight applied to the back in carrying a child. (Gentlemen, you just try strapping one or two large bags of dog food around your middle and see how it feels!)  All that new extra weight must be supported by the same backbones.

 Spontaneous release by positioning is my preferred way to relieve backache and warm-up stretches or yoga postures are my preferred ways to prevent backache. First, they are easy to do, with exercise books and yoga classes available in abundance to guide you. Second, it is virtually impossible to do them incorrectly unless it hurts. As the old joke goes, "Doc, it hurts when I do that." The reply: "Well, don't do that." Doing it right means doing it gently. If you do a set of each first thing in the morning and again at bedtime, you will work better, sleep better, and feel better.  Do this every day, and you will notice that you are able to reach further and touch those toes again. My high school Phys Ed teacher told me a long time ago that the single, simplest test of a person's physical fitness is to see if they can touch their toes. Can you?  If not, do stretches. If you can touch them, continue doing stretches.

 If you want to foster your self-reliance in caring for your back, these simple first aid techniques, which are closely related to osteopathy, physical therapy and chiropractic, may help. It still takes me aback that there isn't more interest from those three professions in spontaneous release by positioning. Maybe it is because the name is too long. Maybe it is because it takes more time than busy practitioners want to spend. Maybe it is because wellness self-reliance cuts into the profit of fee-per-visit professionals.

 In other words, perhaps it is because this procedure works too well.

 I was on the faculty of a chiropractic college for three years, and although I am not a chiropractor, I know a lot of them. I am yet to see an adjustment technique that is more gentle and more effective than spontaneous release by positioning. Once a woman, who was an aide at a nursing home, came in with some numbness down her arm and no grip strength.  Her job consisted largely of lifting patients, and at 52, she'd been daily straining her back for a long time. She had been to the usual flock of doctors and received the usual gaggle of prescriptions. None really helped; how can a pill correct the position of a bone? Spontaneous release on her lower neck, a matter of a few painless minutes, and she was better.  She said she could feel, right away, the change in her arm.  Her grasping ability came back while I watched.

 Another woman, who had seen so many physicians that she'd lost count, had numbness and tingling all down her lower legs, and swollen fingers and toes. Doctors had ruled out any malady they knew of, and told her to learn to live with it, as she was getting old. The lady was 60. Half an hour of spontaneous release later, she had normal feeling in her limbs and, most incredibly to me, the swelling was gone from her fingers.

 This is a great technique. Darned if anybody is taught it anymore, though.

Copyright C 2004 and prior years Andrew W. Saul.

Andrew Saul is the author of the books FIRE YOUR DOCTOR! How to be Independently Healthy (reader reviews at ) and DOCTOR YOURSELF: Natural Healing that Works. (reviewed at )

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Andrew W. Saul


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