Shadow Pain: Repatterning and Remapping to Heal Old Aches

How Rolfing Can Help

Photo: Martino Pietropoli

Photo: Martino Pietropoli

The typical recommended waiting time to receive Rolfing after a surgery or injury is 6 weeks. It may be more or less depending on the nature of the procedure or injury. After 6 weeks, the body has typically completed its healing process, and then the very important work of repatterning and remapping needs to be done. Let me explain:

Remapping: one of the reasons why acute pain turns into chronic pain is because the brain has deemed a certain part of the body “in danger” and as such, we are highly sensitive to any stimulus from the outside world. We may even register harmless input (like a person’s light touch or a gentle bump against an object) as very painful. After the 6 week healing has completed itself (and ALL tissues complete their healing cycle), people may continue to feel pain or restriction in that area. This hyper-sensitivity may not be because of damage to the tissue but because you are subconsciously protecting the area. The table below illustrates this concept:


Effective remapping removes this subconscious over-protection. It occurs due to positive input, which can be from many sources; Therapeutic touch, pleasant movement, laughter, social engagement, and even affirmative language can reinstall pain-free confidence in a previously injured area. The languaging piece is incredibly potent. Look for bodyworkers, movement instructors, and medical professionals who speak about your body’s potential and strengths rather than what is wrong, or what will never be right. One example of this is the debunked myth of the chronic low back pain due to a bulging/herniated, or "slipped disk" (see above table taken from the US National Library of Medicine). It is a proven fact that most of us have some sort of disc issue, especially as we age, but without any reports of pain whatsoever. Therefore, there is much more to pain than damaged tissues. With this in mind, notice how you perceive and talk about your own body in your words and thoughts. 

Repatterning is about how we use our bodies to navigate our lives and the world. It is a big picture that includes how we feel about ourselves, our jobs, our friends, family and partners. In a Rolf Movement session I focus particularly on physical sensation: how does it feel to be in your body, how do the various parts speak to you, how do they relate as a whole? Does your pattern serve a seamless recovery post-injury or post-surgery, or can you resource your movements in a more efficient and stress-free way? 

In my experience, people are generally quick to be able to remap (likely due to neuroplasticity) but repatterning can take time, effort and patience. This is probably because our dominant patterns operate below the level of the conscious mind. Most of our patterns set in as soon as we attempted to stand for the first time as babies, and they were also subconsciously influenced by environmental factors like how your parents behaved. Our movement and postural patterns are intricately tied in with our self-identity.

We may think that by doing certain physical activities, like yoga or running or CrossFit, that we are learning new movement and postural patterns and it is enough. This belief is bolstered by obvious physical changes like weight loss and muscle gain. The truth is that we usually resource complex movements in the same ways we resource normal everyday activities, in other words, our original pattern is the foundation upon which we do all that we do. An example of this is if you overarch your back to stand up from a chair, you might also stress your low back to do squats or yoga poses.

Injuries and surgeries often add more disorderly noise to the mix, while what we want in a balanced body is a melody of poise and harmony in movement. Rolfing can help to instill a sense of effortless alignment, length, freedom and ease which is the basis of mind-body health. We need this solid, stable, balanced yet adaptable foundation in order to truly excel at any physical endeavor, including finding comfort and alignment in everyday movements like sitting, standing, walking and breathing.