Help me get rid of shoulder tension that’s plagued me since 1980
February 28, 2014 7:06 AM   Subscribe

I carry all the tensions of my life in my shoulders and neck. Any time of day or night, if I turn my focus to my shoulders, I’ll find they’re involuntarily tensed tight, as if my body were trying to curl up and brace itself against something. Even when I feel quite happy and relaxed, the tension is there. I would love to hear your recommendations on the best way to address this specific problem. I’d like it if the solution were something I could do myself, but I’m open to considering yoga, massage, whatever, if they will lead to a lasting solution.

The key part of this question is: I’d like something that I can use to keep my shoulders relaxed all of the time. So a massage that will relax them and keep them relaxed for a day or two is not going to do the trick by itself. It’s gotten to the point where they’re so tense I barely know what it feels like to have them relaxed. I will probably have to learn a whole new way to hold my body.

I mainly want to hear from people who have tackled this isolated-tension problem themselves, especially if it involved neck or shoulders. Are there any particular exercises or techniques that you can pass along? What finally gave you lasting, unconscious, 24/7 relaxation of the troubled muscles?
posted by ROTFL to Health & Fitness (35 answers total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
What do you do for your job? I'm guessing that a large chunk of this comes from having a sitting sort of job where you don't have a good ergonomic sitting situation and then you're stuck there for hours at a time. I've heard yoga and stuff is also good for strengthening the muscles that will allow you to hold a good posture, but when I left my last job my upper back and shoulder pain magically went away and I realized it was because I'd been sitting in a really terrible chair with my screen really low for way too long. At home, I don't exactly have a better chair but I do tend to get up and move around more, and at least my monitor at home is elevated to eye level. Makes all kinds of difference.
posted by Sequence at 7:14 AM on February 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

I am one of those people who carries my tension in one place. For me it's right above my lower back. I have stretches to do (they help) and I swim for exercise (it helps) but to really get it to sort of go away what I've had to do is basically sit totally differently. That is to say that it hasn't gone away but that it's pretty clear to me that my regular work-based sitting and typing and screen staring isn't just not good for it, it's actually creating the general problem which is that I live with stress (as many of us do) but I'm storing it someplace. So I've tried to move to a standing desk when I feel it's getting problematic, and when I read for fun at night I usually do it with my back on the bed and my legs up resting on the wall to get my back into a better, different position. And Advil sometimes when it's really not great.

I totally hear you on massage being a temporary panacea, but you might look into a physical therapist who can look to see if you have an ongoing situation that might be really helped by exercise or even a few general stretches. You can go to a few appointments and then get a plan for how you can do stretches at home that will keep the area relaxed, or as relaxed as it can be given how relaxed you are.
posted by jessamyn at 7:16 AM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I used to have this too. The solution for me was three-pronged:

1. Massage. Maybe once a month or once every other month.
2. Posture. How's your posture? Keep your back straight and your shoulders down and back. My shoulders would have a tendency to creep up when I was tense and this was a big part of the problem.
3. Self-massage. My massage therapist showed me how to do self-massage on the big tendons or whatever that run down my neck to my shoulders, and this helps a lot.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 7:16 AM on February 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

I deal with this myself. You need a holistic treatment that reduces the tension, not just something specifically focused on your shoulders. Regular vigorous exercise is a biggy in reducing tensions. Swimming, walking, hiking, running or just working out at the gym, 3-4 times a week. Do get some stretches specifically for neck and shoulders — head goes side to side, up and down, bends left and right, etc., plus shrugs and arm swings. Invest in one physical therapy session to get these right. Watch posture when sitting at a desk (sit up straight, don't cross legs, feet in front of you, good keyboard/screen ergonomics etc.). Get up and walk around/do a few stretches every 30 minutes. Sleep with a good memory foam neck pillow. Avoid having cold drafts where you sleep or sit for work. The thing is there is no magic bullet, no mantra that will fix it, you have to work at it.
posted by beagle at 7:16 AM on February 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

There's a very good chance yoga can help with this, and you should at the very least try it. If you have an iPhone I highly recommend this app, which is $2.99 and has a wide variety of downloadable "classes" ranging in ability level and duration. I've been doing one of them every single day for five weeks and the difference it has made in my back pain, tension, and general stiffness is absolutely incredible.
posted by something something at 7:28 AM on February 28, 2014 [8 favorites]

I had a chronic painful knot in my left shoulder blade for many years. I tried every way I could think of to relax it: massage, acupuncture, chiropractic, steam rooms, hot tubs. Nothing worked. I couldn't find any way to relax it away.

Then for unrelated reasons I started going to the gym and doing a strength-training workout. Over the course of a few months as I worked on and strengthened my upper body the knot stopped bothering me so much and eventually went away completely.

It was very striking. In retrospect it makes sense, but it was the opposite of what I thought I had to do.
posted by alms at 7:34 AM on February 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

I can tell when my pillow is getting old and mashed by how sore my neck is in the morning. Have you tried futzing with your pillow: a fatter one, a thinner one, sleeping more on your side or more on your back, etc?
posted by Liesl at 7:35 AM on February 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

I find stretching helps me when my shoulders and upper back get tight.

I sit at the edge of my bed (or anywhere I can have a straight back) and then gradually but determinedly tilt/shift/roll my head to stretch the muscles out (forward, to the sides, etc. as needed by which muscle group is bothering me). Doing this consistently and for 30 seconds or more at a time really helps work out the knots.

I also have found that working out helps keep it from happening.
posted by oddman at 7:43 AM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

My cure for shoulder tension and pain has been the T-Tapp Basic Workout. It seems expensive for a short workout with cheesy production values... But I get incredible results from using it regularly. My posture is so much better, my shoulders are relaxed and pain free. I can easily turn my head 90 degrees in either direction (I used to have to turn my whole torso to, say, check the lane next to me when driving). I enjoy yoga, but it never "fixed" my shoulder problem, and T-Tapp did (allowing me to enjoy yoga more). It's not an exciting workout, but once you learn it you can do it without the DVD in 15 minutes or so. Hands down my best fitness purchase ever.

Also a good investment for my shoulders: a Tempurpedic pillow.
posted by Kriesa at 7:43 AM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I had this, and as much as I tried massage, exercise, stretching, yoga, healthy eating etc. And yet I would still have a back made of stone and knots in my shoulders so hard they would make my arms go numb. the single thing that helped the most was taking a muscle relaxant and getting a pain patch to put over them. I felt like an idiot going to the doctor for a "tight" back with a "few" knots, but at some point it was a the nuclear option or nothing.

The relaxants aren't a cure all- and they are addictive, so heavily regulated, but HOLY CRAP they work. I've used them maybe three times so far in the past 2 months when the pain got super intense, and it is amazing how having relaxed muscles makes all the yoga, massage and exercise much more effective.

Sometimes you need a hard restart; don't count out talking to your doctor.
posted by larthegreat at 7:46 AM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I developed this problem about 11 years ago when nursing my first child. I didn’t know it then, but the position I was using caused all kinds of strain on my upper back. Long after I stopped nursing, the pain was still there, exacerbated by my desk job and sleeping posture (extremely flat pillow, arm outstretched under it). It got so bad that I couldn’t lie flat on my back without sharp pain. I had a massage therapist describe that area of my body as “cardboard”. So, something needed to change.

I started regular chiropractor visits, a very aggressive schedule – 3 days a week for 2 months straight. I was lucky to be able to afford this through work benefits; it’s not cheap. But IT WORKED. The pain that I had been harboring for 6+ years was finally gone. I continued infrequent chiro visits for the next 6 months but stopped altogether after that, and 3 years on it has not reappeared. Yes, I still carry pain there when I get stressed out, but it now goes away with proper rest, stretching, maybe a massage. Before this, nothing helped.

Note that I still work the same desk job (lots of computer time) but I changed my pillow significantly – I went from a 2-inch pancake to a thick, hard, memory foam pillow. It was a big adjustment, but has been amazing for my back and shoulder area. (See my previous question here). It is a regular-shaped pillow, not contoured.

On preview...I think this intense chiro treatment was the "hard restart" I needed. I agree with larthegreat...I think you need something like that.
posted by yawper at 7:58 AM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would recommend looking into Alexander Technique classes. Alexander is not stretching or massage it's a program that teaches you proper alignment and how to move and do everyday activities with the least amount of tension possible. Lots of actors and performers study this.

I finally got my father who had terrible back issues that was turning into hunched over posture to take some classes and it made a huge difference.
posted by brookeb at 8:06 AM on February 28, 2014 [7 favorites]

There was a period when I was practicing yoga and Pilates regularly, and I noticed that my shoulders and neck and upper back were much less tense. It wasn't anything I did consciously, either. I guess because stronger core muscles help maintain better posture, both of which help reduce tension in neck and shoulders? (I've long since fallen out of the habit, and my posture is awful again, and my neck and shoulders are always tensed up.)

So that's one way to learn how to hold your body in a new way.
posted by taupe at 8:09 AM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

yoga will almost certainly help with this. There are several simple poses you can do for this: child's pose and downward dog are two.

I used to have tension and pain in my neck/back which has been about 80% reduced through a yoga practice.

I'd recommend a regular yoga class; if you can't do that, try some videos on youtube.
posted by bearette at 8:11 AM on February 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

See a doctor. It could be you carry all your tension in place X. It could also be that you have a bone spur or a shorter than usual something or other or some other physical problem that makes you use your body wrong to overcompensate for problem X, which leads to problem Y. Solving problem Y will only get you so far.

Message and yoga and better posture and being mindful as you use your body are still
going to be your answers, but you and your teachers will be better able to address the issues if you either identify or rule out a problem.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 8:12 AM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm turning into that person who evangelizes over and over about something dramatic that worked for me but....I had the same issue that was absolutely intractable no matter what I tried (though I would get some short term reduction in symptoms). Here's what I tried that didn't really work:

--muscle relaxants (3 different classes)
--migraine medications
--Yoga (3 kinds)
--3 types of meditation
--4 types of massage, including rolfing
--gentle weight training
--rigorous exercise; gentle exercise

Here's what did work (like flipping a light switch, after just 2-3 weeks):

--treatment of low Vitamin D3 with (medically approved) high dose supplementation

AND (most critically, and dramatically, in terms of results)

--treatment of sub-clinically low B12 with massive oral doses (equivalent to injections)

Here's what also had to happen prior to that:

--treatment of a non-obvious sleep breathing disorder
--treatment of a non-obvious autoimmune disorder

Don't do this unsupervised. Get blood work. Pay attention to even "borderline" low values and be persistent with your doctor about them. Get a sleep study (if you are also tired). This advice would have saved me years. Years. (Not to mention thousands of dollars in pleasant but not particularly useful out-of-pocket complementary medicine.) Obligatory: if you don't have these same deficits that I do, these vitamin interventions will do nada.
posted by blue suede stockings at 8:24 AM on February 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

Work on your core - mine is very weak, and my physical therapist (who I saw for something unrelated [sciatica]) told me that a weak core was causing a lot of my aches and pains. I notice that once I work on my core, my posture is better and my upper back and shoulders don't hurt so much.
posted by sutel at 8:26 AM on February 28, 2014 [5 favorites]

I'm in the process of working on this myself, so I can't say these things have cured me, but here's what has helped so far.

Yoga for Pain Relief by Kelly McGonigal - she has a book, but also did a Google Authors talk, with a 10 minute or so routine at the end of the video (I'm sure the talk is useful too, but I haven't watched it in ages, so don't remember). This provides temporary relief, although perhaps if I did it more regularly the effects would be more permanent.

Going to physical therapy - I just started this, and when I drove home from my first appointment, I could tell I could turn my head further to each side. Here are two of the stretches she gave me that have helped my particular areas of tension (so may or may not address your issues) - see armpit sniff and armpit sniff with a twist here.

Being aware of my posture, specifically my head leaning forward. I've repositioned my monitor at work, I try not to slouch, and I try to hold my phone up closer to eye level.
posted by loop at 9:29 AM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I had a similar problem for several years. When I moved to a standing desk, I had our ergonomics person look at my new workstation. He noted that my old desk had me twisted. Of course my shoulders were miserable. It was holding them wrong for HOURS each day.

Getting a properly fit desk changed everything.
posted by 26.2 at 9:34 AM on February 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

I had tight shoulders for years. It was solved for me by one strengthening exercise prescribed by my physical therapist. (Previously I'd tried all sorts of stretching and massage with only temporary results.) I have to do this exercise at least 3 times a week or so. Starting out, I'd try to do it every day while slowly upping your reps.

Here's the exercise:
Do a plank from your elbows with good form. (Your hands and forearms are on the floor and you can hold one first in the other if you want. If you're not sure about your form, have someone watch you the first few times.) Now, dip just your chest (this will be a small movement) and raise back up to starting. (Your arms don't move while you dip but your shoulders/blades do.) Work up to 10 reps.

My PT said it worked because in order for the upper muscles (the tense ones) to relax, the lower ones needed to flex and be strong. Something like that. It sounded crazy to me but it works for me. YMMV.
posted by purple_bird at 10:32 AM on February 28, 2014 [6 favorites]

I had this problem for years, and I will second yoga. Not just because it strengthens your core muscles and stretches your shoulders and neck, but because it also builds body awareness that will help keep you from tensing up your neck/back/shoulders during the rest of your day. And *that* is what will cure you.
posted by instamatic at 11:29 AM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Knowing the anatomy of the neck and shoulders can help too. Just looking at a picture like this can help you focus on how your back muscles should ideally look/feel at rest.

This works especially if you're a visual learner.
posted by TG_Plackenfatz at 12:23 PM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have the same problem, and have always been sad that I can't seem to stretch the muscles on the sides of my neck, no matter how far sideways I tilt my head. But recently I learned a stretch from a physical therapist that actually works! You just have to tilt your chin towards your chest, like you're looking at your toes, and then tilt your head to one side or the other. You can kind of experiment to stretch different parts of the muscle by putting your chin down slightly to the right or left of center before tipping your head, too. It won't totally solve the problem, but it sure does help when you realize your shoulders have been creeping up towards your ears all day.
posted by vytae at 3:22 PM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I switched to using a standing desk, and my shoulders and neck ended up less tense and less painful at the end of the day.

My husband also noticed he was holding his shoulders in a very tense posture and asked me to tap him briefly on the shoulder whenever I noticed, to remind him to relax them. He also said he made an effort to check his posture in every mirror he passed, and set an alarm on his phone multiple times a day to stretch and relax.

You are right that you probably have to learn how to relax them, though. One thing that can help you feel what it's like to relax is to deliberately tense them as hard as you can and hold them up to your neck, and then release that tension. You'll probably release some of the underlying tension too. Also breathing out and thinking "go all floppy" can help.
posted by lollusc at 4:51 PM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I second the idea of physical therapy. Doing yoga, or taking on an exercise program, without expert advice is like self-medicating. See your doc, and ask him for a PT prescription. I've had three bouts with PT and still do the exercises that control my back pain.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:34 PM on February 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Getting the right stretches and strength training helps tremendously, but when I slack off of those and need to reset, this temporary fix also helps:

I lean backward against a wall, so that my body is at almost a 45-degree angle to the wall, knees bent, the tops of my shoulders pressing on the wall. My head and neck are lightly resting on the wall.

I put a tennis ball on top of one shoulder and by stepping left and right, move the ball along my shoulder from my neck to the top of my arm, back and forth, using my legs to constantly push my shoulders toward the wall.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 6:27 PM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think you have to chip away at the little things that contribute to it.

Anxiety often expresses in the neck, shoulders & upper back, because people clench teeth (resulting in jaw tension that moves out and down). Anxious people also tend to have bad posture, with the head craned forward (vs chest out and up with head in neutral alignment with the spine). If anxiety is an issue, I would work on that. (Not only by addressing cognitive aspects, but by changing life situations if necessary, e.g. if certain dynamics cause you to react in these physical ways).

I agree with using physical movement of any kind as often as possible, partly to loosen up those muscular habits -- everything's connected and it will for sure improve your overall posture. If anxiety is part of things, it may help there too. Directly addressing the shoulders/neck will too, but I think, just get moving.

If you have to hunch over things for work or hobbies, reconsider your ergonomics, for sure.

I had outrageous neck pain from early teens to mid-twenties for all the above reasons (plus, I was rear-ended by a 16-wheeler in late teens). It all kind of just stopped when I made big changes in my life (moved to another city), moved around more physically, and stopped hunching over books. (i.e. could read casually for interest in a relaxed way, vs reading in a concentrated manner / getting all up in my books' faces). (I had also been treated for anxiety and depression with drugs for a while in there, but the neck pain didn't stop until I made those other changes. I credit most of it to general fitness)

I lived with no pain for years; some of it's coming back now with more hunched reading. Taking breaks and stretching helps.

Progressive muscle relaxation is a thing, but I always found it a pain (ha). It makes sense as an idea (feedback, learning) and I'm sure some people have been helped, but who wants to clench hard to relax? Counterintuitive and hard to make yourself do, I find. Anyway.

tl; dr - work out.
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:41 PM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

When I was 19 I was in a car wreck and had some whiplash. I had a series of osteopathic back adjustments and moved on. Without even being aware of it, my shoulders tightened up over the next years until I was tense and rigid across my shoulders and neck, to the point that eventually I had trouble raising my right arm high enough to brush my hair. I didn't think much about it - I was a tense, driven person anyway. Fifteen years later I had some other medical issues come up and in the hospital they found my B12 levels were way subnormal - ditto folic acid.

I was given a bottle of Rubramin injectable and a needle and syringe and made to give myself a shot. I then left the hospital and went home, which took about an hour. When I got home, I took a shower and then brushed my hair as I dried it - and suddenly realized I had no tension in my shoulders and no trouble at all brushing my hair with my right arm. I could swing my arms all around! Incredible.

I was on the B12 injections for nine years, but only once a month after the first few weeks of getting started. I also took prescription-strength folic acid.

Again, like blue suede stockings, my blood levels of B12 were ridiculously out of range on the low side. It would probably be a good idea to get your levels checked, but honestly, if you don't want to bother with that, it's no longer necessary to do injections of B12. It now comes in a tiny pill that dissolves under your tongue and is absorbed from there much more effectively than through the stomach. I'd pick up a bottle of them from a good health food store and take a couple of them a day for a week or so and see if there's a difference. If not, you're only out $10 or so, but it's just possible that you'll have the same result blue suede stockings and I had.

I'd recommend this especially if you've tried all the massage and yoga and physical therapy and muscle relaxants and other treatments.
posted by aryma at 11:15 PM on February 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

A daily yoga practice changed my life in this regard. Seriously, I remember saying to my husband one day, several months after starting my practice, "it's so amazing to not feel tension anywhere in my body anymore." I honestly didn't think people lived like that. 4 years later and it's still true.
posted by sickinthehead at 5:22 AM on March 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: As usual, pretty much all of these really deserve "Best Answers." Thanks to everyone for all the excellent info and ideas. I'm already making plans to try some of them.

I notice that yoga has been effective for many folks. Does the school/style matter? And has anyone tried hot yoga for this problem? I ask because there's a popular Bikram studio near me and I've thought about trying it for the shoulder tension.
posted by ROTFL at 10:18 AM on March 1, 2014

Bikram is in fact one of the several types of yoga I tried! I couldn't do it primarily because of low blood pressure (adding dehydration is a bad thing), but it's also been said that people can injure themselves because they are able to overextend (i.e. tear) muscles in high heat, when they'd get pain/tension signals stopping them before this point in non-hot yoga. Some swear by it though.
posted by blue suede stockings at 10:36 AM on March 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I got one of these foam neck bolsters that tuck into your pillow case on the recommendation of my chiropractor. It has helped a ton! My chiropractor also gave me stretches to do, and helped me figure out that a lot of my tension lived in the area around my ribs and sternum - not intuitive, but when I massage and stretch those areas, my neck and shoulders feel better.
posted by mai at 5:07 PM on March 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would strongly advocate for the Alexander Technique.

I've found that other things (yoga, massage, stretching) help for about 1-3 days but didn't change the way my back felt long-term. The Alexander Technique goes the root of the problem by focusing on how you hold your body, how you move, how you do repetitive tasks, etc. You re-train your body how to do these things in a way that will not cause pain. All the other things I tried previously seemed to try to address pain after it was already present - A.T. tried to prevent that pain from building up. It really, really helped.
posted by leitmotif at 9:25 PM on March 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

The style/school of yoga doesn't matter, though my personal favorite is baptiste style power yoga. Try Bikram! If the heat is too much, try something else. I would recommend giving yoga 3-4 chances before you decide if you love it. It will probably be pretty different (and much more challenging) than you expect. Good luck to you!
posted by sickinthehead at 4:47 PM on March 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you scrunch your shoulders up to type, this happens. If you work at a desk for a few hours a day, lower the desk a few inches, or raise your chair. Make sure that the top of your monitor and your eyeballs are about even, so you're not looking up at the monitor, and not looking way down.

Other than that, it seems like you want meditation, not necessarily yoga; has been pretty good. Part of the idea there is to gain a constant (not-unpleasant!) constant self-awareness of yourself and what's around you, and that sounds useful here.
posted by talldean at 8:10 PM on March 4, 2014

« Older Help me identify the big metal thing I saw on the...   |   What to do? Teenager is a Bum. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.