Neck and Shoulder Tension

The Art of Letting Go

One of the most common complains I hear, as a massage therapist, is neck and shoulder tension. We are all actually hardwired to store tension in this area of the body. If you look at anyone surprised by a loud noise or any sudden stressor, you will see their back arch and their shoulders elevate as they respond to the stress. Many people however, go through life with unnecessary neck, shoulder and body stress as they hang on a bit too tightly to fear.

While there is no one quick fix for neck and shoulder tension, there are several things that you can to do to reduce tension in this area of the body. One of the first things to look at is how you handle stress psycho-emotionally. Not all stress is bad. I recall reading a quote years ago, “A diamond is a lump of coal under stress”. I love that expression because it flips the stress paradigm on its ear. No matter what the source of our stress, we need to deal with the problem and then let go of. Hanging on to any type of stress will eventually lead to a health issue somewhere in the body. That is the nature of stress. What we don’t let go of, we store. And we don’t just store stress in our head, because our mind (neural tissue) reaches into every inch of our body. So, dealing with stress effectively is step one. This is a massive topic that goes well beyond the scope of this article. However, some methods of dealing with stress might include yoga, meditation, progressive relaxation, biofeedback, lifestyle changes, mental imagery, massage and even exercise. If all of these methods fail, one can even consider cognitive or psychotherapy, since most stress is actually self-generated (assuming that you have food on the table and a roof over your head).

Once you have looked at the psycho-emotional components of neck and shoulder stress, you should look at ergonomic and mechanical causes. To begin with, make sure that your workstation is set up properly for you. Workstation biometrics (the physical dimensions of your workstation) is extremely well understood. Ergonomics is a well-developed science that can inform you on how to set up any work environment. The U.S. Department of Labor has a very detailed checklist for computer users on their website. If your work requires more movement, an ergonomist is the best person to advise you on how to improve the mechanics of your workplace. However if you are moving a lot in your job, chances are that you don’t deal with a great deal of shoulder tension. This brings us to our last point.

What muscles love is movement. What they dislike is being asked to work without rest. That (unfortunately) is what many of our jobs ask of us. Our position at the computer typically asks muscles to remain in a static contraction for hours on end. This is a perfect scenario for chronic muscle tension. The way to reduce tension is regular stretches or movement to get the blood flowing. If you work at a computer, I suggest that you do a 30-second stretch at least every 20 minutes. There are several free software programs that will remind you to stretch at regular programmable intervals (search phrase “free stretchware”) A few basic stretches that I will mention are shoulder rolls, shoulder shrugs, and neck stretches.

Figure 1

Figure 1 shows shoulder shrugs. The idea here is to raise your shoulders as high as possible for about 30 seconds. After that your muscles will fatigue and let go of your shoulders.

Figure 2

Another exercise to help your brain to let go of shoulder tension muscles is shoulder rolls (figure 2). Do ten clockwise circles with your shoulders, and then do ten counter-clockwise circles.

Figure 3

Figure 3 shows one way to stretch your shoulder muscles and your neck at the same time. Stabilize your left shoulder by holding onto your chair seat, and then flex your neck to the right. Then reverse the stretch to stretch your left side.

For more stretches check out Shelter Publications‘ website. They have lots of online resources at Online Stretches or Office Fitness Clinic. You can also go to the University of Virginia’s Environmental health and Safety website or simply do an online search for office stretches. Then print and post the sheet near your workstation.

Finally, of course, massage therapy is the number one method of reducing muscle tension. Massage relaxes your nervous system, reducing muscle tone, and it also mechanically works out trigger points (knots) and loosens tight muscles. Many people include massage in their monthly health routine to reduce stress and maintain a healthy mind-body dialogue.

In conclusion, remember that while environmental stressors and our genes might contribute to neck and shoulder tension, tense muscles are largely the result of habit. The trick is to break the habit and let go of tension, by whatever means works best for you.

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