Crooked: Outwitting the Back Pain Industry and Getting on the Road to Recovery II

Here are some excerpts from this 2016 book:

From at least a dozen people, including actors, writers, and musicians, I’d heard that the Alexander Technique had made a big difference in their lives. Among the well-known adherents were Kenneth Branagh, William Hurt, Kevin Kline, Jeremy Irons, James Earl Jones, Kelly McGillis, Paul Newman, Lynn Redgrave, Maggie Smith, Robin Williams, Paul McCartney, Sting, Julian Bream (the classical guitarist), James Galway (the classical flutist), and Yehudi Menuhin (violinist and conductor). The attraction was long-standing: In the 1930s, such luminaries as George Bernard Shaw, Aldous Huxley, Lewis Mumford, and Leonard and Virginia Woolf had taken AT lessons…

…the BMJ published the outcomes of a large randomized controlled trial, funded by the United Kingdom’s Medical Research Council, which is in turn funded by the government. University researchers had recruited about five hundred patients from sixty-four general medicine practices. Prior to starting the trial, the patients, all of whom had experienced at least five years of back pain, made lists of tasks they could no longer perform. When the study ended, the plan was to evaluate whether anything had changed. One group of participants received “normal” care, that is, physiotherapy (as physical therapy is referred to in Britain) or an educational booklet. Another got massage therapy. The third group engaged in six lessons in the Alexander Technique, and the fourth group had twenty-four AT lessons, in combination with a walking program. Those who were massaged were the first to experience relief, but when the massages ran out, so did the benefits. The physiotherapy patients and those who had six AT sessions saw less improvement than those who took twenty-four Alexander lessons and joined the walking program. In that group, the number of “things I can no longer do” decreased by more than 40 percent.

Instead of inspiring admiration, the study upset both allopathic physicians (who practice conventional Western medicine) and holistic practitioners, who feared that the British National Health Service (NHS) would bail on standard conservative treatments for back pain, ruining their practices. Normally, after a paper appears in an eminent scientific journal, a few comments, phrased with great deference to the authors, are published or posted online. But after the paper describing the Alexander Technique study appeared in BMJ, it generated sixty-seven such comments within days, mostly from physicians. Few of them were even marginally polite. Just as UK physicians had anticipated, or feared, the NHS embraced the Alexander Technique as part of its revised guidelines, and declined to allow epidural steroid “jabs” for most common low back pain conditions. From there, it got ugly. In July 2009, Paul Watson, at the time the head of the British Pain Society, who had been involved in developing the new NHS guidelines, and thus put the kibosh on injections, was ousted from his leadership post, in what members described as an “extraordinary row.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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