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.