The Trager Approach to Breaking the Pain Cycle

by Ilene Shunfenthal Watrous, MA, RPT and Susan March

Anyone who follows a holistic approach to life is well aware of the interrelationship between mind and body, yet surprisingly few people adhere to this psycho-physical principle when they seek treatment for muscle and joint injuries, or reduction of chronic pain.

Although these traditional methods may provide a patient with some welcome short-term relief, most do little to effect long-term, healthy movement of the entire body because treatment is typically confined to the injured area. Little instruction is imparted that empowers the patient to treat his or her own pain in the future -- in essence, to become one's on therapist.

With a manipulative perspective, some traditional therapies employ deep pressures and sharp movements as if they were necessary evils of successful treatment. Thus, pain becomes an integral part of the experience.

What these therapies fail to recognize is that the human mind houses the ability to actively participate in the healing process and that the process need not be painful. Quite simply, they fail to tap the power of the mind.

The healing properties of the mind are based in fact, and there is ample evidence to support the interplay between the nervous system (mind) and the muscles (body). The human mind and its muscles are engaged in constant sensory-motor feedback loops, and a change in the feelings of the nervous system can elicit change in the muscles.

Over 60 years ago, Milton Trager began to make use of this phenomenon and developed the Trager© Approach to physical rehabilitation. For Dr. Trager, "the attributes of the body and mind are holistically interrelated in the whole electro-mechanical force field that is living matter."

Through a series of gentle compression, lifting, swinging, flexing, rocking and range of motion movements, Dr. Trager gave birth to an alternative bodywork, useful for the treatment of any number of muscle and joint ailments that plague people, from chronic back pain to sports injuries to the problems associated with disorders such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's disease.

More than a massage therapy, the Trager Approach is, in its truest sense, a communication between the practitioner and the unconscious mind of the patient, where the "message" is freedom of movement, freedom from pain, re-integration of body parts and comfort within the body. Through Tragerwork, the body relearns to use its injured and dormant parts.

In Dr. Trager's own words, the communication between therapist and patient is transmitted "through the autonomic nervous system from the therapist's mind, through his hands, to the involved area. This feeling is picked up in the patient's mind because of the manner in which the tissues are worked, creating the feeling of relaxation...

"It is the manner in which I work, not necessarily the movements I do, that brings about the change. Every move, every pressure of my hands, every thought is directed toward bringing new feeling experience to the unconscious mind of how the affected areas should feel."

The movement performed during the session is a subtle and positive suggestion to the nervous system about what motion is possible. None of these movements are forced. With gentle rocking, the body is never put into positions which are stressful. And because active participation of the patient is discouraged, the passive body can freely lean which positions and movements are easily possible.

During a Trager session, there is no deep prodding or squeezing, as is found in some forms of bodywork and massage. In fact, one of the guiding principles of Tragerwork is to avoid inflicting any sort of pain. Trager practitioners "back off" if they encounter tightness or resistance in body parts or muscles. There is no attempt to "work through" a tight area. Lightness and freedom are the operative words in a practitioner's daily vocabulary.

For the patient, the session is an extremely pleasant experience -- the non-threatening rocking motion is hypnotic and relaxing. Variations of movements reduce any anticipation of actions and encourage a passive experience.

Another unusual aspect of the Trager Approach is the attitude of the participants. Dr. Trager has always expressed his desire that patients come to him to learn, rather than to receive treatment.

Likewise, Trager practitioners also bring an unusual attitude to the session -- the movement of joints and muscles is not viewed as the isolated goal. Rather, the practitioners purpose is to introduce motion into the muscles and joints that will produce positive and pleasurable feelings into the nervous system that will effect tissue change.

Though the tablework portion of the Trager Approach discourages active participation, there are some post-session activities, or exercises, that are taught to patients to help them recreate the pleasant and positive feelings they experienced with the practitioner. These are called Mentastics℠, a term coined by Dr. Trager meaning mental gymnastics. These exercises consist of playing with, then releasing, the weight of various parts of the body. They remind the patient of the feelings experienced during the session. By performing Mentastics, patients can recall during the following days the deep relaxation felt on the practitioner's table.

So much of what people feel, both physical and psychological, is negative. Through the Trager Approach, negative pain cycles can be broken and replaced by movements and feelings that are positive, pleasant, and more pain free.

Ilene Watrous has been in private practice in Princeton Junction, NJ, since 1986 and has been a Certified Trager Practitioner since 1987. She can be reached at 609-799-5204.
Susan March is a free-lance writer based in West Windsor, NJ. She can be reached at 609-275-7185.

[From Holistic Living: a celebration of life; Volume IX, Number 4; July/August 1992]