Help me help my SO relax her neck and back
February 5, 2012 4:11 PM   Subscribe

My SO's back and neck seem to be permanently tied in knots. She doesn't seem like a tense person, but her muscles indicate otherwise. I can massage her for a while, but it only does so much for her. Can anyone give me suggestions to help her relax her back and neck?

When I give her massages, I can help her a bit, but it either stops helping, or I start pushing too hard and it hurts her. She's gone to a professional masseuse once or twice, and they're always surprised at how tense she is, and those massages don't do much. I was thinking about getting her a series of massage sessions, with the hope repeat visits could help, but she has usually brushed off massage.

She enjoys soaking in baths, but that has never really loosened her up.

We've done yoga together before, but our schedules (plus a 6 month old child) now make it hard to go to a yoga class with enough frequency, and now we live in a small community, 15-30 minutes from bigger cities, adding another obstacle. We have some home yoga DVDs, and could use suggestions for back/neck specific poses or practices.

As for her: she carries a few heavy bags for work, always on the same shoulder. It's generally the opposite side of her back that hurts. She doesn't think that's an issue, so I don't push her on it. She's also a bit overweight, and rather busty. She'd like to work out, but is often tired after work, and has a few hours of baby-duty before I get home to help.

In short: what are your suggestions for me to help my SO with her knotty back and neck?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (30 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: She's also a bit overweight, and rather busty.

How busty is "rather busty"? The weight of her breasts could be causing her upper back tightness and knots. Work targeted towards improving her posture, especially her upper back (think barbell rows, dumbbell rows, face pulls, even body rows on a Smith machine, rings, or barbell).

Also, she has heating pads and stuff she puts on them, right? A sock full of rice thrown in the microwave works really well.
posted by Anonymous at 4:29 PM on February 5, 2012

I'll preface this by saying I'm not sure if this will help with the knotty back per se, but my shoulders, especially my left shoulder, get really tight after sitting hunched over a computer all day. I also have an old injury to my trapezious muscle. Anyway, one thing I learned in yoga that helped was a very gentle stretch. Roll a towel and put it under her back (around bra strap level). She should put her arms out to the side and bent up at the elbow (the stereotypical position used in TV when someone says put your hands up). Basically like this, but with her legs flat on the floor and the rolled towel under her back. If having her hands out to the side in that position hurts, then she can also keep them straight out. It's a gentle passive stretch that she could do for 10-15 minutes per night or if you guys manage to get in a yoga session, she could do it at the end.
posted by kaybdc at 4:31 PM on February 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

I have the same issue as your SO, and something that did help was regular visits with a theraputic masseuse at a chiropractor's office. We also have one of these shiatsu pillows that helps get at some of the knots.

I would suggest she also do some stretching throughout the day. I find neck and shoulder rolls particularly helpful.
posted by jenny76 at 4:34 PM on February 5, 2012

What's the nature of her work?
posted by flabdablet at 4:42 PM on February 5, 2012

This sounds like me a few years ago. I went to a chiropractor for a bunch of sessions and it helped me a lot.
posted by selfmedicating at 4:49 PM on February 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Soft tissue manipulation and other therapies can go a long way to temporarily ameliorating the ill effects of her misalignments, but to address the ongoing cause of her problems a program of exercise that improves the strength and endurance of her posterior chain (i.e. the 'pulling' muscles) should be pursued. To this end you'd be better off putting your cash towards a home weight set or membership at a local gym (preferably one with a competent PT with an eye for posture corrective exercise, who will very likely have dealt with dozens of women with issues identical to your wife's).
posted by Kandarp Von Bontee at 4:51 PM on February 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

I had this problem for years. It went away on its own when I got out of grad school. I only wish I were joking.

Figure out where the stress is coming from and change that.
posted by Sublimity at 5:01 PM on February 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sorry to sound all infomercially, but I did just buy a Sharper Image back massager from Bed Bath and Beyond. It changed my life. I love and get lots of relief from massages (I am a small girl who welds metal), but I couldn't afford it every week, or even every month. I bought this silly thing two months ago and can use it every night if I want to, focusing on where I need it. Best $125 ever!
posted by Vaike at 5:13 PM on February 5, 2012

I have this problem. Long days hunched up reading documents and typing at a computer exacerbate it. Getting regular exercise helps a lot. If she can't do yoga, she needs to run and lift weights, or swim, or something.

I don't have experience with chiropractic, so maybe that's an option that can help. But the only thing that has ever worked for me is exercise and fitness. (Well, muscle relaxants are nice little pills of magic. But that's not something I take or would want to take on a maintenance basis.)
posted by J. Wilson at 5:28 PM on February 5, 2012

I had persistent trapezius (shoulder blade to lower neck muscle) soreness and spasming over the last year. Only things that fixed it were proper desk posture and being careful about keyboard and mouse positioning, exercises, sleeping flat on my back more. At this point she probably has cumulative stress and injury and needs to stop doing anything that aggravates her back for a week or two so she can break the cycle and get some healing started; that means changing how she sits at her desk, no carrying anything heavy, and taking frequent breaks to get out of her chair and change positions for 30 seconds. I would bet money it's mostly how she's sitting/typing.
posted by slow graffiti at 5:32 PM on February 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

I have tense and sore upper back and neck muscles, and I find it gets a lot worse if my computer screen is not at the right height. If I work at a laptop, this is almost guaranteed to be the wrong height, because if the keyboard is at a good height, the screen is far too low.

I also had worse problems back when I had a bicycle with a badly-proportioned frame that didn't suit me, but I have a longish bicycle commute, so obviously that's unlikely to be a problem for your wife.

Finally, back and shoulder workouts with weights are good for building the sort of muscle that naturally holds you in a better posture. Pull-ups/downs, rows, deadlift, and to a lesser extent dips and shoulder press are all really good for the back.
posted by lollusc at 5:36 PM on February 5, 2012

Oh, and some of it is almost certainly going to be from overcompensation, so not on the side or affecting the muscles where the problem really is. Once a muscle gets sore or injured, we tend to hold ourselves and move in an unnatural way in order to protect the painful place, and this leads to more pain elsewhere. So don't rule out that her bag might be contributing, even though that's the opposite side of the body.
posted by lollusc at 5:38 PM on February 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

I watched this video: and I did find that a tennis ball did relieve some tension, but I did find myself sore and tender after so I can't do it every day.
posted by spec80 at 6:12 PM on February 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sorry, here is the link.
posted by spec80 at 6:13 PM on February 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Is she wearing the right bra size? A properly fitting bra should provide a lot of support from a (relatively snug) band instead of tight shoulder straps. The weight of her chest shouldn't be on her shoulders or upper back. Getting fitted by a professional at a lingerie store couldn't hurt!
posted by zxcvz at 6:25 PM on February 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

better posture, strengthening the muscles in the upper back, and not carrying anything on the shoulders or back. carrying things is definitely an issue, in fact it could be causing everything you've described.
posted by facetious at 7:06 PM on February 5, 2012

Yoga did absolutely nothing for me, but Pilates made a huge difference for my upper back pain. It's focused on core strengthening, but core strengthening improved my posture which improved my hunching which improved my upper back pain. Getting a good backpack with chest and hip straps also made an enormous difference. My dad also gets pretty bad upper back pain when he doesn't run for a while -- just keeping himself loose all over helps. Really, any regular exercise ought to make a difference.
posted by brainmouse at 7:24 PM on February 5, 2012

she carries a few heavy bags for work, always on the same shoulder. It's generally the opposite side of her back that hurts. She doesn't think that's an issue, so I don't push her on it.

It's a bad idea to always carry your bags on one side. She must learn to switch off, even if it feels awkward at first. Or switch to a backpack.
posted by JimN2TAW at 7:45 PM on February 5, 2012

Where on her back is the tension and pain?

If she has pain between her shoulder blades, for example, given that she's busty, try massaging her pectoral muscles, not just her back. Go slow and get gradually deeper, don't just dive in. Heat first to prepare the area helps.

I know you said she doesn't want to pursue massage but I think it's worth encouraging her to try again, with the right person that you have adequately researched. Look for someone who has been doing it a while, has good recommendations, and has expertise in an area like medical massage or sports massage, not just in relaxation/spa treatment. And yes, go multiple times to the same person.

Did you see a licensed massage therapist? If so, please don't call them a "masseuse". If not, you should.
posted by parrot_person at 8:00 PM on February 5, 2012

I wouldn't discount the baby, either. (Not that you should get rid of the baby.) But, if the baby isn't sleeping well, she might be tensing up at night in her sleep, waiting for the baby to wake. Also, if she carries the baby often, maybe her mechanics are exacerbating the tension.

She should also check her ergonomics at work and try a more supportive pillow at night.

Strengthening my back muscles helped my shoulder and neck pain. Planks/pushups, superman poses, side crunches, and pull-ups (or just extended hanging) to work her lats could certainly help, and she can do all these at home.

Even if she was in good shape before the baby, late pregnancy can throw off your mechanics and those muscles may have gotten weak, so she's compensating with her shoulders.
posted by elizeh at 8:18 PM on February 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have a lot of tension, pain and twisted muscle shit in my upper back from years and years of playing saxophone ambitiously (it hangs around your neck).

Stretching has helped a lot. Specifically the yoga poses plow and rabbit - though it isn't great to do these in isolation, i.e. those poses help the most, but they sort of have to be done as part of a broader practice.

And its polarizing advice - and I was so "this is bullshit but I'm out of options" when I finally went - but I'll be damned if the chiropractor and the acupuncturist didn't help as well.

IME and among my fellow sax players, its something that can be alleviated but not cured. We call the upper back pain the 'always spot.'
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:19 PM on February 5, 2012

There may be many separate causes for her pain, but I guarantee you the bag is making it worse. I used to carry a heavy bag on one shoulder, and I used to have terrible lower back pain on the opposite side. When I switched to a backpack, I looked like a ninth grade dork all over again, sure--but the pain went away.
posted by collectallfour at 10:26 PM on February 5, 2012

A new Tempurpedic pillow worked for me. They are controversial --they do smell when new but it goes away and the benefits far outweigh that issue. I just used a double pillowcase. I came in a skeptic and left a believer. The bed she is sleeping on could be a factor too. Bought a new bed (not an option for everyone I realize). I'm not rich --I've slept on second hand beds most of my life. Bought a REALLY good bed and the pillow. All neck and back problems including sciatic nerve problems gone. You spend one-third of your life sleeping. Its the best investment I've ever made.
posted by Muirwylde at 10:38 PM on February 5, 2012

I get this a lot -- one thing that really, really helps is regular use of the shoulder press machine at my gym (this one).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:53 AM on February 6, 2012

Mrs. Shmoobles and I discovered that neck and shoulder massage is way more effective if the receiver is laying on her back rather than her stomach during the treatment. If you haven't tried it already...

Sit cross legged on the floor, have her lie on her back on the floor in front of you. Reach forward and under her to massage up into her neck and back muscles, thus utilizing the weight of her body and gravity to amplify your efforts. Gently pull on her neck from the base up to her head and stretch her spine a little (oh-hohohoyeahhhhh...ahhh).

We've found this way more effective than a laying-on-your-stomach massage and it's a better position for women who are nursing or just plain well endowed as they don't have to lie down on their boobs.
posted by No Shmoobles at 6:39 AM on February 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

When I have lots of knots up in that region, my RN mother advised me that drinking more water can help. Dehydration can effect muscle function. Does your SO get enough hydration?
posted by frecklefaerie at 9:03 AM on February 6, 2012

I have a terribly tense neck, to the degree that a doctor was suggesting injecting Novocaine into it (what?). The best thing for it is sleeping on an ergonomic pillow. I started with cheap ones from Target and they were okay, but not wonderful Then I paid one bazillion dollars for a Tempurpedic neck pillow and it was worth every penny.

Is she breastfeeding the baby? If so a Boppy pillow -- or similar, there might have been advances in nursing-pillow technology -- could help stop her from hunching and holding her neck at a weird angle, if that's an issue.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:32 AM on February 6, 2012

I have this problem, including the one-shoulder heavyish tote that I know isn't great for me, but that vanity/habit prevents me from changing. I also experience most tension on the side opposite to the bag, so much so that RMTs usually ask me if I had injured my that shoulder previously (I haven't to my memory).

I was recommended lots of neck & trap stretching. Like, once every hour or two.

e.g. Sit straight on a chair or bench, grab the bottom of the seat with your left hand, so that your left arm runs as straight down your side as possible. Facing forward, tilt head to the right and let it fall towards your shoulder until a stretch is felt, then hold a few moments. After the stretch settles, drape your right hand over your head and rest it on your left ear, and let the hand drop/pull GENTLY, deepening the stretch. Hold for a few counts. Repeat for the other side, and repeat a few cycles of this throughout the day. You can change the area of the stretch by tilting your head differently (e.g., point nose towards right armpit if you're stretching the left side).

It was also recommended that I strengthen my core muscles, but especially pay attention to my pecs/chest muscles. Apparently stronger chest muscles help balance out the tendency to hunch. I was also taught to stretch my chest muscles as well, like in the first photo/description here.

I'm lazy in addition to vain, so I don't do these things consistently. None of them feel as good as a deep massage, but they do help relieve that some of the burning tension during the day that I sometimes get.
posted by miss_kitty_fantastico at 11:28 AM on February 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

My wife had similar complaints for years. They were greatly reduced after her gall bladder was removed. A wonky gall bladder can cause referred pain in the shoulder blade area just like you've described. Good luck.
posted by Daddy-O at 7:17 PM on February 6, 2012

Theoretical correct position for a computer monitor is right in front of you with the top of the screen at eye level. Too high and you will get neck pain; too low and you'll get upper back and shoulder pain. If you regularly work with a screen that's off to one side, even by as little as fifteen degees of neck rotation, you'll end up with one-sided pain.

If I work at a laptop, this is almost guaranteed to be the wrong height, because if the keyboard is at a good height, the screen is far too low.

Cheapest fix for this is four housebricks and a USB keyboard and mouse. In fact that's exactly what I'm using right now. Works well.
posted by flabdablet at 2:59 AM on February 7, 2012

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