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A Sympathetic System

by Joel Carbonnel(more info)

listed in bodywork, originally published in issue 53 - June 2000

There may be some truth in the saying 'no pain, no gain'. Pain is a friendly signal alerting us that something is dangerous or abnormal. Pain is not a disease but a symptom. To get rid of pain too swiftly, by whatever means, without correcting and removing the cause, is harmful. Sometimes, the only way to get better is to bring back to the surface, to re-awaken an old and concealed pain.

I explained last month how the antalgic reflex a priori (ARAP), a mechanism discovered by Françoise Mézières, can, by hiding a pain, create distortions and various neuro-musculo-skeleto-visceral troubles. The ARAP is a very important scientific discovery of great therapeutic value in the field of medicine and physical therapy. But how does it originate?

To answer this question we must first investigate the portion of the general nervous system, known as the autonomic or vegetative nervous system. The nervous system is made of two distinct parts: the cerebro-spinal or somatic, which directs the voluntary actions of the body, and the autonomous, which, as the name suggests, is self-governing, and controls the normally involuntary functions of the body, such as heart beat, intestinal movements, salivation and so forth. However, this division of the nervous system into two parts is an arbitrary one: they are anatomically linked and they physiologically interact. The autonomic system is itself subdivided into sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. The interplay between these two systems maintains the homeostasis within the body.

There are still some gaps in our understanding of the autonomic system which has been rather understudied in comparison with the cerebro-spinal one. This makes it a fascinating subject of investigation. From The Peripheric Nervous System, by Guy Lazorthes, I note that: "The Sympathetic system is the fundamental element of the nervous system: it does not have any subordination vis-à-vis the cerebro-spinal system." Evolutionarily speaking, it is the oldest part of the nervous system and that may be the reason why its actions are not limited to the so-called vegetative functions but touch the whole organism.

Without the intervention of any conscious volition the autonomic nervous system (ANS) activates many processes. Prof. F. Wood Jones says that "…the whole of (its) activity is… 'a mechanism of self-defence'. It is an involuntary activity called forth in response to fear or pain, and it fits the animal for the struggle which in animal life is likely to follow the receipt of an unpleasant sensory impression." This remark will help us understand why the sympathetic system is the instigator of the ARAP.

The sympathetic trunk is like a long necklace composed of fibres and ganglia (cluster of nerve cells). It 'hangs' from the base of the skull down to the coccyx. So, in each side of the front part of the spine, lie two sympathetic chains with many ganglia. There are also other outlying ganglia, some directly in the walls of the organs. The sympathetic cells, having migrated and wandered away from the protective encasement of the spinal column and ending up in outlying ganglia, have gained some independence, but, alas, some vulnerability too.

Any trauma, even slight, such as falls, impacts, blows, and jolts can irritate and disturb a sympathetic ganglion at some level of the spine. The pain caused by the irritated ganglion is rapidly palliated by the adoption of an abnormal posture. This quick avoidance of pain constitutes the ARAP. This reflex is so efficient that the pain might not even reach the consciousness of the sufferer. And even if the pain is consciously felt, it quickly disappears to be consigned to oblivion.

According to Mézières, the resulting antalgic posture always involves a lordotic bent (a hollow in the back). The spine literally bends over backwards to accommodate itself to the painful stimulus. The lordosis immobilizes and 'freezes' the 'injured' segment of the spine, as if to put the pain into quarantine. To preserve this status quo, the abnormal lordosis has to be maintained at all cost. A normal posture and natural movement require a free spine which would disturb this antalgic lordosis. To avoid this, the body reaches a compromise orchestrated by the autonomic system, and adopts an awkward posture which, in time, can lead to various deformations and symptoms ranging from osteoarthritis to pseudo-paralysis.

Because the separation of the sympathetic from the somatic is only partial, the former retains some connections with the latter via some nerve fibres. As a result, the effects of the compression or irritation of a ganglion travel far away from the original source, and usually reach the limbs. The reverse can also happen. A painful stimulus can travel centrifugally as well as centripetally, so that a trauma affecting a limb can very well have repercussions into a ganglion, affecting the corresponding level of the spine.

Mézières was very curious about the ANS. Her method primarily addresses this little known and still mysterious system. During and after a session of the Mézières Method, it is common for the patient to experience reactions which unmistakably come from the ANS.

Profuse sweating in certain areas of the body as soon as a posture is taken, dry mouth, blushing, trembling, tears, laughs, pins and needles, dizziness… These reactions must not be mistaken for psychological ones – the postures act on the ANS, not directly on the mind or emotions.

While the Yogi tries to have a conscious control over his autonomic nervous system (which he calls Kundalini), the Mézièrist works at freeing it from any interference so that it can mind its business without any conscious control – as Nature intended.


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About Joel Carbonnel

Joel Carbonnel is unique in combining the disciplines of the Alexander Technique (STAT), the Mezieres Methode (AME), Morphopsychology (SFM), and Natural Hygiene (ISI). From this synthesis he has developed Orthomorphics which is centered around the close relationship of Use, Form and Function. He practises in London and Haywards Heath, and can be contacted on Tel: 020-8747 8583;


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