Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Are you sitting at the computer feeling tension in your neck?

One of the most frequent complaints that I see in my massage practice is chronic neck and upper back or shoulder pain.  Working at a desk or computer all day can cause neck and shoulder pain, stiffness as well as headaches.   Stress and tension on the job or at home also contributes.  While some neck and shoulder pain may be the result of injury or disease, the majority is due to muscle tension. 

The neck has a very complex and mobile structure.  It is especially vulnerable to stress and strain.  The head weighs between 10 and 20 pounds!  It is supported by seven vertebrae and held in place by 32 muscles.  Between the vertebrae are pads of cartilage called discs, which act as shock absorbers.  Eight nerves, four major arteries and the spinal cord run through the neck.   

When our neck and shoulder muscles tense, either from stress or poor posture, the blood supply to the muscles decreases resulting in pain.  More stress, either physical or emotional, results in more tension and thus more pain.  Many of our everyday habits contribute to neck and shoulder pain. The best way to relieve the pain is to ease the physical and emotional stress and treat the muscles.  So how do we do that?  Here are a few suggestions:
  • One of the simplest things to do is lie down and give your muscles a chance to rest and recover. 
  • Apply ice or heat to your neck.  Ice numbs pain and decreases inflammation.  Heat increases circulation and can ease stiff muscles.  Try alternating heat with cold.  This can be very effective at relieving pain.
  • Practice relaxation techniques such as progressive relaxation or “belly breathing”.   Exercise can be another way to relieve the stresses of the day.
  • Use good posture and ergonomics when working.   This is crucial.  Posture has a lot to do with neck pain.  Look at the ergonomics of your work station. Always keep your work at eye level. “Desk neck” is caused by looking down or reaching up to work.  Simple changes can make a huge difference.
  • Take frequent breaks.  Get up from your work station, walk around and stretch.   A recent study found that office workers who took frequent breaks and did some simple exercises had 41% fewer headaches and 43% less neck and shoulder pain!
  • Get in shape.   Strengthening the stomach, neck and back muscles will help improve posture.  Make an appointment with a personal trainer for some instruction and tips.
  • Get regular massage.  Massage will help relax tense muscles and increase blood circulation.

Here are a couple of simple exercises that you can do to relieve neck and shoulder pain:
  • Sit erect but relaxed.  Lower those shoulders away from your ears!  Slowly turn your head to the right and  hold.  Return it to the center.  Now slowly turn it to the left and hold.  Return it to the center.  Drop your chin slowly to your chest and hold.  Relax and bring your head back up.   Tilt your head toward your left shoulder and hold.  Bring it back up and repeat on the right.  

  • Stand with your back and head against the wall.  Press your shoulder back as they are against the wall, then release.
  • Stand with your back and head against the wall.  Move your chin forward and back keeping it parallel to the ground. 
  • Cup your hands behind your neck and lift your head back and up slightly against the pressure from your hands.  Slowly lower.
Repeat each of these exercises several times every two to three hours.  If you have severe pain or any underlying neck/ shoulder problems or injuries be sure to check with your health care provider  first. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Ways to relieve stress naturally

We live in stressful times.  Stress takes a toll on our health and well-being.  It can lead to high blood pressure, obesity, heart disease anxiety, depression and insomnia among other things.   There are many things that you can do to reduce stress.  An article from Fox News published July 6, 2011 outlined 10 ways to reduce stress naturally.  Here are a few of the suggestions mentioned in the article.
  • Massage   Ok, this a no-brainer and first on my list for obvious reasons.   Massage relaxes tense muscles, reduces pain, improves circulation and quiets the mind.  
  • Exercise   Exercise releases endorphins into the brain which improve your mood.  It prevents other health problems giving you less to be stressed about, and it allows you time to be alone with your thoughts and enjoy nature.   One of the easiest and most effective forms of exercise.….go for a brisk walk.
  • Eat healthy   It has actually been proven that junk food can make us depressed!  Healthy foods like whole grains and protein can improve your mood and give you plenty of energy.  Foods proven to have stress-busting properties include blueberries, salmon and almonds.
  • Sleep   Too little sleep leaves us cranky.  Too much sleep and we are sluggish and depressed.  Try to find the right balance.  Promote better sleep by establishing bedtime rituals that signal to your brain that it is time to fall asleep.
  • Meditation   I’ve had a lot of people tell me that they are intimidated by the idea of meditation.  They find the practice difficult and are afraid that they “won’t do it right”.   There are some very simple ways to “meditate”.  One of the easiest is to focus on your breathing.   Check out my blog posting  "Deep breathing for stress relief"   for more information on using this technique.  15 minutes of quiet time everyday can be a fantastic way deal with or release stress. 
  • Organize your life   Organization offers a sense of control and peace of mind.  Sometimes the mere sight of clutter can put us on edge.  This is certainly true for me. 
  • Limit internet and cellphone use    Part of the problem with reducing stress in today’s world is that we can never truly shield ourselves from it.  By turning off the computer and our cell phone even for just a few hours we limit some of the channels from which stress can reach us.  I frequently suggest a “news holiday”  to my clients when they are feeling very on edge.

Live in the moment and appreciate it!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Massage beats medication for low back pain

A study published in the July 5th issue of Annals of Internal Medicine reported that massage may be better than medication or exercise for relieving low back.  Participants were 401 patients, mostly middle-aged, female and white, all of whom had low back pain.   These women were assigned to one of three groups: structural massage, relaxation massage or usual medical care.  Those in the massage groups were given hour-long massage treatments weekly for 10 weeks.   Those who received either structural massage or relaxation massage were better able to be active and work for up to a year than those who received usual medical care, which included painkillers, anti-inflammatory drugs, muscle relaxants or physical therapy.   At 10 weeks more than one-third of those who received either type of massage said their back pain was much better or gone, compared to only 1 in 25 patients who received the usual medical care.  Six months out, both massage groups still had improved function.  Most Americans will experience low back pain at some time during their lives.   Massage is a relatively safe approach with proven benefit.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Gardening for Stress Relief

People often ask me what I like to do to relax and relieve stress.   One of the most effective stress busters for me is getting in touch with nature and connecting with the earth.  While there are many ways to accomplish that, one of my favorites is gardening.  

Gardening is a very healthy pastime.  Physical activity is a great outlet for tension and reduces your risk for a multitude of chronic diseases including heart disease, high blood pressure, depression and diabetes.  Digging, raking, planting and pruning will help build endurance as well as increase flexibility and muscle strength.  The physical activity will also strengthen your heart and lungs and help with weight control.  Just getting out in the sunlight and fresh air can boost your mood.  
If you think that you might enjoy gardening here are some suggestions to get you started.   
  • First, start small and plant things that you will enjoy.  If flowers make you happy then plant a few flowers or try container gardening.  Just a few potted plants might be enough.  Herbs are easy and rewarding to grow. 
  • Don't worry about the best way to do things.  The most important thing is to just get started!
  •  Keep your gardening to-do-list short.   Gardening shouldn't create additional stresses if you are doing it to reduce stress.
  • Remember to stretch before and after working in the garden to minimize potential aches and pains and be sure to take frequent breaks.  
  • Use good body mechanics when bending and lifting.    
  • Sit back and enjoy what you have accomplished.
Happy gardening everyone!