Head, knee and toes fine; shoulders not so much.
October 10, 2008 10:08 AM   Subscribe

My shoulders hold all of my stress. What can I do about it?

For as long as I have been getting shoulder or back rubs from friends, they have noted that my entire shoulder and neck area feel like one huge knot. Rolling my shoulders makes a horrible grinding/popping noise. Good massages hurt like hell (In the best possible way), but never seem to really alleviate the issue. Is there something I can do to try and halt this? Is there some posture or stretching exercise I should be doing? Should I invest in a hitachi magic wand and not really care what people think I'm using it for?

Stats, if that is needed: fairly petite, mid 20's female. Chest not big enough to be causing this problem. No other part of my back seems to be affected.
posted by piratebowling to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
Google and learn some neck stretches and do them multiple times per day. Also other stretches and movement for your arms and upper body. If you work at a computer terminal or do other work sitting down, make a point of getting up and moving around several times per hour. Get some general exercise daily or as often as possible, like walking, running, riding a bike. Get a Tempur-pedic neck pillow and get used to sleeping with it. Google "neutral pelvis" and learn how to apply this to sitting, standing and walking. Go ahead with the magic wand anyway, and we don't care what you use it for.
posted by beagle at 10:36 AM on October 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

The magic wand is useless for shoulder and neck tension. I can, however, endorse it for other uses.

For a palliative, stretching, yoga, rolling around on a tennis ball, and stretching or lying on the tennis ball in a hot sauna work for me.

I'm interested in hearing about long term fixes. If you find a silver bullet no, not that kind! let me know.
posted by crazycanuck at 10:46 AM on October 10, 2008

I suffered from a tremendous amount of neck and shoulder pain in my mid-to-late 20s. Looking back on it, there were several causes:

* too much time sitting at a desk with bad posture
* too much time hunched over my laptop at home
* not enough of the right kind of exercise
* too much stress, without the proper outlets.

I did see a chiropractor for a while, and that helped, but the thing that really helped the most for me was starting a martial arts program - the full-body nature of the workout, over time, really made a difference in my physique, my posture, and the relationships between the various muscle groups. Furthermore, it made a huge difference in my stress level.

A martial arts program might not be what you're looking for, but I'd heavily recommend some kind of program that really emphasizes using all parts of your body.
posted by swngnmonk at 10:52 AM on October 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

For Relief:
Try a floor and/or wall in combination with a tennis (to start) or lacrosse ball (if you really love the pain). They also have self massage products that you can use to really get in there.

For Prevention:
Pay attention to your posture, and pay attention to your ergo set up at whatever occupation you might have. For example, if your desk is too high you are probably bunching up your shoulders all day. Working out can help too. If you have a muscle imbalance, it can throw all of the surrounding muscles off kilter.
posted by milqman at 10:53 AM on October 10, 2008

Must be a desk job, right? I catch myself hunched at the keyboard often, even though there's no need to do so.
posted by rokusan at 11:00 AM on October 10, 2008

Things that have helped me with a similar problem: getting my workspace as ergonomically-correct as possible, along with weekly chiropractic + massage. Still, this hasn't been enough - I'm currently waiting for a physical therapy referral. You sound like a good candidate for that as well.
posted by chez shoes at 11:33 AM on October 10, 2008

Yoga. It'll also help your posture so that your back will hurt less in the future.

If you haven't taken yoga before, try it 2-3 times a week for 2-3 weeks before deciding you don't like it. For most beginners it takes a while to understand the poses and stop being self conscious, but then once it becomes normal to you so you can relax with it, the benefits will be a lot clearer.
posted by miss lynnster at 11:57 AM on October 10, 2008

A) Yoga, at least once a week, to correct your posture.

B) Stand in front of a mirror with your arms by your sides. Windmill your right arm all the way around (i.e. stretch it as far back as it will comfortably go, as far up, as far forward and then down again) Do this motion at a steady but deliberate pace for 30-60 seconds and then reverse the motion (forward, up, back, down) for 30-60 seconds. Once you get a steady pace going, you're likely to hear a lot of that nasty grinding/popping....(IANAD!!) my understanding is there is nothing wrong with that noise as long as you don't feel sharp or lingering pain (IANAD!!). When you've finished the right arm, and you've done it right, you will probably see it actually hanging lower than your left when you look back in the mirror. Repeat for the left arm, then do both again one more time. Do this every couple of days.
posted by and hosted from Uranus at 11:58 AM on October 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: no offense to those who have already posted suggestions but please, don't just start doing any of these exercises without seeing a doctor first

you need to first identify the sources of the tension in your shoulders (which could be related to the structure/alignment of your bones &/or muscles, your diet, stress, or any combination of these) - for this you will need to consult with some kind of experienced medical practicioner (chiropractor, physical therapist, osteopath - ask your doctor for a referral)

they will be able to recommend the proper exercises for dealing with these problems - if you are carrying alot of tension, and you put too much stress on the wrong muscle group by doing the wrong exercise, or by doing the right exercise wrongly, you will regret it - deeply

I speak from painful bitter experience... & wish you the best
posted by jammy at 12:13 PM on October 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Tennis ball. My shoulders are always a wreck--I'm predisposed to tension there cause of how I sit &c. + swimming--and laying on the tennis ball every night before I fall asleep helps a lot. Maybe kick if off with a massage and then use the ball to keep you loose.
posted by dame at 12:21 PM on October 10, 2008

Ahh, this is me. This has been a chronic issue for me since forever.

For acute pain, I have never found anything more effective than acupuncture. Trigger point release is the technique that alleviates actively spasming muscles. (Aren't you moving to Philly? If you are here already, Mefimail me and I will send you the name of my acupuncturist. She's awesome.)

To prevent/keep at bay: yoga is the only thing I have ever found that works. Not a vigorous class or a muscle building fast paced class, but a slow, restorative, yin practice. In particular the poses that you will find most unpleasant are the ones that you require the most. I had a deep loathing of downdog for about 8 years before I finally realized that it is one of the core poses that unlocks my shoulder blade/neck knots.

What I've finally learned, pointed out by a lovely and knowledgeable massage therapist, was even though I always thought the issue was shoulders and neck, it's actually my tight hips that are causing the pain. (What with the hip bones being attached to the back bone and the back bone being attached to the shoulder bones, etc...) when muscles in one area are too tight they pull everything that is attached to them out of position.
So if you do yoga hip openers (lunges, pigeon) and upper back stretches (downdog, dolphin) a few times a week for 15 minutes or so, you will notice a massive difference.
Again, PM me if you have questions or need advice.
posted by 8dot3 at 12:23 PM on October 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

I used to be the same way. Getting an ergonomic pillow did wonders. I also saw a physical therapist, who showed me some good stretches and exercises.
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:24 PM on October 10, 2008

Yes, you're right to Best Answer jammy, I should have remembered that I too, faced with this problem, benefited from good diagnosis and PT aimed at the alignment part of the problem.
posted by beagle at 12:35 PM on October 10, 2008

I agree with seeing a professional, but knowing the cause is only half the answer. Sticking to a treatment plan is the other half. I went to a doctor for chronic neck/shoulder pain, who sent me to a PT. She gave me a bunch of exercises to perform several times a day. Since I work at a computer, my solution was to install Workrave, "a program that assists in the recovery and prevention of Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI)."

Basically, it locks my screen for 30 seconds after extended periods of computer use. If I'm right in the middle of something, I can dismiss it but I usually just huff and then do my neck twists. It's been about six months and I'm still injury free!
posted by funkiwan at 12:59 PM on October 10, 2008

Wow! This sounds exactly like me! Everyone finds the weird tension/popping sounds in my neck and shoulders absolutely gross. It almosts feels as if the muscles are skipping across the bones. I used massage and that seemed to make issues worse- so I would avoid any hardcore therapuetic massage unless specifically recommended by a doctor that doesn't seem like he just wants to take your money at his medspa.
posted by razzamatazm at 3:26 PM on October 10, 2008

Get out of grad school. Worked for me.
posted by Sublimity at 8:11 PM on October 10, 2008

I also agree with jammy that you should see a professional about this. I've been seeing a chiropractor who uses Active Release Techniques, and it's been working wonders. My doctor says that it's not just a matter of telling me to have good posture, because my bad posture has changed my body so that I don't have the muscle endurance to do that right now. She's been identifying the muscles that I'm over-using (the ones you use to shrug your shoulders) and working with me to strengthen the muscles I should be using instead (the ones between my shoulder blades). Slowly, this is correcting my posture. My neck is not as tight anymore because I'm spreading the weight around. I can turn my head farther, and my repetitive stress injury in my arm is finally improving.

Massage helps too, but it's a temporary (partial) fix that only addresses the symptoms. You do need to change how you're carrying your body, or you'll keep building the same tension. It can accelerate therapy, but it can't fix things on its own.

Here's a couple of neck/shoulder stretches that I've found useful:
  • Bend your head forward all the way down so your chin touches your chest. Hold for 30 seconds. You should feel this stretch in the middle of your upper back. Sometimes I hold my head down with my hands until I feel a slight tension, but I find that I have to use both hands, or it stretches one side of my back more than the other side.
  • Do this one sitting on the floor. Bend your head to one side (towards a shoulder, like when your dog is curious about something), turning your chin down slightly towards that shoulder. By turning your chin, you can feel that the stretch is more towards the back of your neck than the side. Increase the stretch a bit by holding your head with the hand on that side (left shoulder, left hand) until you feel a slight tension in the side of your neck that is outstretched. While you're doing that, move your other hand along the ground until you're making a triangle between your outstretched arm, your side, and the ground. Hold for 30 seconds and switch sides.
  • Roll your shoulders in circles forwards for 30 seconds. Then do them backwards. This loosens things up quite nicely, and when you do get into therapy and start making progress, you'll notice that this exercise feels very different.
I've been lucky to find a doctor who works with my personal trainers at my gym to make sure they're not giving me exercises that aggravate the problem. It will help you to know exactly what you're doing wrong and how to avoid it, and how to teach your body to carry itself more effectively.
posted by heatherann at 8:49 AM on October 11, 2008 [3 favorites]

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