How and why the AEQ method reduces and eliminates chronic pain
Learning the AEQ method® needs to be a pleasant and comfortable experience to achieve the full effect, and our clients are always surprised how fast the time flew by. It means our clients have learned a lot, which is the primary goal of the AEQ method®.
Albert Einstein wrote: We learn the most by doing things with such pleasure that we even fail to notice when the time passed.
Learning through the AEQ exercises® is also the key to changes of the neuromuscular system functioning, which is used to direct the awareness to the body. Lack of awareness is the main reason for chronic pain, which is a way that our uses body tries to get out attention.
I can honestly say the chronic pain is the result of constant lack of attention devoted to the body, its sensations and movement. Usually, as a consequence of demands from the environment, not to sense the sensations and emotions we have as a child and not to express them. Be quiet, be a good boy or a girl; do what is right for you... All that leads to rising muscle tonus to adapt or run away from reality, which we can't stand and can't change.
Acute pain warns us about injury or illness by sending signals to the brain somewhat like this: "You are injured here, or here is your problem – take care of it ".
However, sometimes an injury affects our body tissues as well as the neurons in our pain system, including the ones in our brain and spinal cord, hence causing the neuropathic pain (which is sometimes called the "central pain "as the brain and spinal cord together form our central nervous system).
Neuropathic pain emerges due to the neurons' activity that, in a way, draws pain maps in our brain. Specific, defined areas for information processing in our brain depict external body areas, and they are called brain maps. When we touch a particular part of the body while exercising a specific section of the brain map activates, the part that represents that specific body part.
Those maps of our external body parts are topographical maps, which means the neighbouring body areas are also next to each other on brain maps. If the neurons on our pain maps are damaged, they perpetually send false signals and lead us to believe the problem is the body when, in fact, it is mainly in our brain.
Moreover, even when the body is healed, the system of pain can still be activated. Acute pain entered the afterlife – it has become chronic pain.
Development of chronic pain is easier to understand when one is familiar with the structure of neurons. Each neuron has three parts: dendrites, cell body (soma) and axon. Dendrites are tree-like branches and receive information from other neurons. They extrude from soma that contains the cell nucleus with the DNA. Axon also extrudes from the soma, and it is a sort of live wire of different lengths (from microscopic ones in the brain to the ones extending over the entire leg and are almost one meter long). Axons are often compared to wires as they carry electrical impulses at very high speed to dendrites of the neighbouring neurons (from 3 km/h to 300 km/h). A neuron can receive two types of synaptic signals: excitatory and inhibitory. When a neuron receives enough excitatory signals, it activates its signal. However, if it gets enough inhibitory signals, the activation of neuron's signal is less likely to occur. Axons almost touch the neighbouring dendrites, but they are connected via specialized connections called synapses. Chemical transmitter, called neurotransmitter, activates a synaptic connection when an electrical signal gets to the end of the axon. Chemical transmitter runs to the dendrite of the neighbouring neuron and increases (excites) or reduces (inhibits) the voltage that reaches the soma. When we say that neurons "self-renew their nets" we think of the changes occurring in the synapses, namely the number of connections between the neurons increases or decreases, the bonds weaken or strengthen.
Thus, the teacher of the AEQ method® needs to know how these changes occur in the brain, and therefore we use proprioception and other senses for active self-stimulation of nerve cells (neurons) and connections between them to affect brain plasticity (neuroplasticity), or brain adaptability. This allows the clients to change their habits and awareness themselves; they feel the changes in their bodies and realize they can control and alter the functioning of their whole system. Moreover, these changes activate and incite different connections and patterns, hence less pain as well as functional and structural changes in the body.
Dendrites are one of the two types of the protoplasmic extensions of a neuron; the other extension is axon. Axons usually transmit electrochemical signals, and dendrites receive them. Dendrites have larger surfaces for receiving signals so the chemical signal can be simultaneously transferred to several target cells. Myelin is a fatty substance, which insulates and protects the nerves of the central and the peripheral nervous system so that they can transmit impulses between the brain and different body parts fast. Myelin also contains proteins that can be attacked by the immune system. If the myelin in the central nervous system is damaged, it can trigger many symptoms of multiple sclerosis. Myelin insulates nerve cell axons; however, each axon comprises various long myelinated sections separated from each other by short gaps called Nodes of Ranvier. When the brain sends messages over the nerves of the spinal cord, the impulses jump from one node to the other. Myelin prevents these impulses from escaping the nerve fibre at the wrong point.
The objective of the AEQ method® is altering habitual patterns by renewing neural networks with learning and conscious movement. By doing so regularly, we replace the networks in the cerebral cortex and modify parts of the brain with the patterns we wish to change to improve the condition of the body.
One of the fundamental laws of neuroplasticity is that the neurons that are activated together also form networks together, which means that perpetual cognitive experiences lead to structural changes of the neurons in the brain, the ones that process the experience, hence strengthening the synaptic connections. In plain language, different groups of neurons connect into networks when a person learns something new. When any activity that connects the neurons repeats, these neurons then activate faster, more intense signals, and the skill performance becomes better and more effective. The more often the neurons are activated together, the more myelin is wrapped around the axons that connect them. The connection is better and faster.
That's why we do the AEQ movements. We strengthen these signals by consciously repeating the movements, and that promotes new and better habits. We need to maintain conscious control over the actions even when the brain starts to perform them automatically.
The same goes for riding a bicycle: we consciously control automatic movements to make it through the turn successfully. The AEQ method enables us to alter the sensory-motor part of our brain (skills), to learn new skills and improve them. Then we can also use the subconscious part of our brain from the skills that we have already mastered. And it goes in another direction too. These connections get weaker and even vanish with time when a person stops with a regular and conscious performance of the AEQ movements. Mainly because the modern way of life doesn't demand from us efficient and diverse movement, it's the example of a more general principle of plasticity, namely "use or lose". Other cognitive skills, which are now used regularly, are usually taking over the neurons that were used for those skills. The principle "use or lose" can also be applied to alter the connections in the brain that are no longer useful to us as the neurons that don't activate together also don't form the networks. This is the reason we perform different movements during active therapy and AEQ movements. Client needs to learn how to alter the connections between the neurons in the areas used to execute a particular movement for which he/she learned and formed an incorrect pattern due to the sensory-motor amnesia. This is similar to changing one switch for three lights into two or three switches for the same lights; we can still turn on all three lights at the same time, but we can also turn on each light separately, which we couldn't do before.
The adaptability of the brain is an excellent thing if we have pleasant sensory perceptions as it helps us form the brain, so it can perceive the pleasurable sensations better and enjoy them. Thus, it is imperative not to feel any pain and to not overexert oneself during exercising or movement. Therefore, clients need to decide how much effort they are willing to invest in pandiculation. We also need to pay attention to not coercing the clients into pain or spasms, but to poke them in the right direction just enough so they can improve the skills they already have. However, the neuroplasticity can be a nuisance too, especially when the sensory system becomes the system of pain due to the constant reception od signals. For example, in a case of a herniated disc when the disc constantly presses on spinal nerves. Pain map for that area becomes hypersensitive, and we are feeling the pain even at the slightest pressure on the nerve and not just when the disc touches the nerve or when we make a wrong move. Pain signal travels and "echoes" in the brain, so we feel the pain even in the absence of the initial stimulus.
It is essential to practice the AEQ movements every day for 20 to 40 minutes. In that way, we observe and compare our feelings and sensations and monitor the movement of the body during exercising. Movements should be soft and gentle and should never cause any pain. If the pain occurs, make sure the movement isn't done by force due to our desire to do more than our current state of the body allows it. Such movement causes pain due to non-cooperation and inconsistency of the muscles (too much muscle contraction during lengthening). By trying and learning, we slowly improve coordination of muscle contractions and relaxations, hence perform the movement progressively softer, smoother and more efficiently. It is of crucial importance for long-term improvement of the neuromuscular system, thus elimination of pain. If we focus on movement, alter movement habits and patterns. When the myelin sheath thickens, and the conductivity of the nerve cells improves, clients realize that the movements they perform improve their flexibility, ability to relax, balance and coordination. We can learn the "good" habits the same way we've learned the "bad" habits and have integrated them into our cerebral cortex. Also, AEQ exercises show us how we see ourselves and what is our current relation between body and mind.
Aleš Ernst, teacher of the AEQ method Level 5