© 2008-2011 Richard J. Chandler, PTP, CA, LMT All Rights Reserved
Too often, neck and shoulder pain, tension and stiffness are so much a part of people’s lives, that they no longer consider the likely possibility that with effective therapy and self-help strategies, they can be rid of it. Over the years, we have found that even the most persistently tight upper-back and neck muscles can be loosened, with the result that muscle pains and their frequently accompanying headaches no longer plague clients.
If you have painful neck and shoulder tension, please remember the limits of self-help techniques and seek to combine them with professional therapeutic work. Here are nine contributing factors to neck and shoulder pain and ways to resolve them:
1. Postural Alignment. This is the single most important factor for lessening neck and shoulder pain. In virtually all the people we see with neck/shoulder tension, their posture is sufficiently misaligned to put undue stress on their neck and shoulder muscles.
Take a minute and stand up in front of a mirror. First facing the mirror, what do you notice about your posture? Are your shoulders the same height, or is one higher than the other? Is your neck straight or does it tilt to the left or right? Make the adjustment by stretching and relaxing the tight side until your head and shoulders line up.
Now standing perpendicular to the mirror and glancing to your side, what do you see? Is your head directly on top of your shoulders with your neck aligned vertically or do you notice your head jutting forward? Are your shoulders back and your chest out or do your shoulders round forward? To the degree your neck is angled forward, you are putting undue strain on your neck, upper shoulders and upper back.
Here is how to improve your postural alignment: First, start with your knees. Make sure they are not locked back. If they are, they will throw your pelvis into a forward tilt. Next, look at your pelvis. Is your butt jutting out? Tuck your pelvis and sacrum underneath you. Do this by relaxing your back, lifting from your ribcage and gently contracting your abdomen. By first aligning your lower body, it is much easier to then align your upper body. Next, lift your ribcage even higher, bring your shoulders back and move your arms straight down. Finally, push your chin all the way back while looking straight ahead, at eye level. This will change your neck angle so that your head is more balanced, by resting on top of your shoulders, so your neck and shoulder muscles aren’t engaged in holding up your head.
Working with your posture will reap huge benefits in alleviating neck and shoulder pain. It takes time to change habitual patterns in our bodies. So have patience, combined with a long-term commitment to continually persevere in attaining more ideal posture.
[Note: In many people, excessive tightness in lower back and upper chest muscles will prevent them from being able to get into or hold proper posture. In these cases, it is imperative to seek the help of a skilled bodywork practitioner to massage out these tight, knotted up and constricted areas.]
2. Awkward positioning and over-reaching. Years ago, I did safety and risk management consulting, including ergonomic assessment and problem solving. Even though there has been growing awareness of ergonomics in the workplace for many years, it is still common for people’s workstations and equipment to poorly fit their unique body, resulting in chronic pain conditions.
If you get tired and sore at your workstation, (including your household workstations in your home office and kitchen,) readjust them. If you are uncertain as to what to do or the station doesn’t adjust properly for your unique body, talk with your personnel department and hopefully they will be able to help. Even if your company doesn’t seem to care all that much for your personal welfare, they may be motivated to help in order to prevent a future workers compensation claim.
Whenever you reach out a long way to pick up something or do an activity, you are multiplying the leverage on your neck, shoulders and often on your low back. It is the same principle as using a wrench. If you cannot get the bolt off, you get a bigger wrench with a longer handle. The additional leverage gives you way more torque on the tight nut.
Your extended arm is like the longer handle of the wrench. Unfortunately the places of greatest torque are usually the shoulders or low back, with sore or pulled muscles a likely consequence of overreaching. Try to rearrange your workspace so items may be reached without fully extending your arms. Simple repositioning can make a huge difference over time.
3. Repetitive motions over a long period of time. We often see this with people using computers. In addition to carpel tunnel, wrist and arm problems, use of a mouse quite often results in sore right shoulders. Consider getting a finger pad, or a track ball, if your shoulder is sore from overuse of a mouse. An ergonomic keyboard is also very helpful.
While doing repetitive activities in your work or home life, look for ways to vary the activity, perhaps doing it with the other side of your body or doing it in a different way. Shoveling snow or dirt, raking leaves or doing gardening activities like hoeing are best done while frequently switching sides. Also, simply take more breaks.
4. Abrupt jolts to the body and sudden falls. While avoiding unexpected accidents isn’t always possible, there is a strategy that will lessen the trauma to one’s body, should you have even a split second before the accident to implement this strategy.
Here is the principle behind it: If it is inevitable that you are going to be hit or fall down, the more relaxed you are, the lower the trauma to your body. So as hard as it might be, do your best to relax. If you are about to be rear-ended, move your head backward into your headrest and ‘will’ your muscles to relax. This gives you the best opportunity to minimize injury.
5. Tight muscles and muscles that aren’t warmed up. They also increase the severity of injury, even when other factors are involved. There is much we can do to prevent this type of injury. Even a few simple warm-up movements, followed by some stretches will go a long way in helping preventing the pain of tight muscles. Seek out a yoga instructor or healthcare professional to learn the best warm-up exercises for you.
6. Long periods of immobility and lack of exercise. Our bodies need exercise and motion in order to properly function. When we don’t regularly move them throughout their range of motion, they lose the capacity to function properly. Pain and stiffness are the signals our body gives to show us something is wrong. Stretch your neck and shoulders daily. Strengthen all of your muscles several times per week.
7. Carrying heavy items. Loaded down purses and backpacks, especially when carried on only one side of the body, can also lead to neck and shoulder pain. Consider using a smaller and lighter purse. Make sure your purse (if it is heavily packed) or backpack has wide straps and be sure to carry it evenly on your shoulders.
8. An inadequate pillow or bed. If you wake up with more pain than you go to sleep with, it may be that your bed or pillow are worn out or are a poor fit for you. Beds wear out with normal use in approximately seven years.
Your pillow needs to fit your neck and head so that when you sleep on your side, your head tilts neither up nor down, but is parallel to the bed. I find that pillows with a contour, also called ‘scoop pillows’, work best for most people. With this type of pillow, you can roll from side to side or onto your back and your neck is still supported.
If you like sleeping on a feather pillow, consider replacing it with a buckwheat pillow, which also may be contoured to fit your neck, but unlike a feather pillow, will hold its shape throughout the night.
9. Lack of nutrients, especially calcium, magnesium & potassium. It is imperative that you get these nutrients through your diet or with nutritional supplements in order to help your muscles as well as prevent degenerative bone disease. In our practice, we have found that muscle pain and spasming diminishes considerably, once people begin eating foods with high amounts of these nutrients including dark green leafy vegetables, raw nuts and bananas.
Magnesium citrate supplements are very effective for diminishing pain, muscle spasming and cramping. Pain may also be significantly reduced by taking systemic enzymes, which work to reduce inflammation and excess fibrosis in muscle tissues as well as valerian root, a safe, low cost herb which calms both the muscular and nervous systems.
Richard Chandler is in his 20th year of therapeutic massage and natural healthcare practice. Richard’s aticles on yoga are here: agelessyoga.com. And finally, if you like quotations with introductions and commentary, please go to http://famousquoteshomepage.com. Richard Chandler may be reached at richardjchandler(at)yahoo.com Please substitute @ for (at).