Shoulder pain from working at computer, while sitting and standing
June 11, 2014 8:06 PM   Subscribe

I'm in my 20s and spend all my time working on the computer. I have this recurring pain in my upper left back (Trapezius) which always bothers me towards the middle of the work day. When I massage the area, it feels knotted and tough.

I have a sit-stand desk and do a reasonable amount of standing, but it doesn't seem to help the issue.

When I come home, tennis ball massages seem to help loosen up, and it feels like I have many knots in my back (even on my right side). However, this sharp, annoying pain only comes on my left shoulder. After the tennis ball massage, my back feels better, but the next day it always comes back at work.

I'm focusing on sitting with better posture, (and standing more), but neither seem to help.
Any suggestions?
posted by ptsampras14 to Health & Fitness (23 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Do you exercise? Building up some core strength can help take some of the strain off and will make sitting with good posture feel more natural.
posted by oinopaponton at 8:11 PM on June 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Is your desk at the right height when you're sitting? I use my standing desk as a much higher sitting desk to reduce this problem.
posted by Hermione Granger at 8:16 PM on June 11, 2014

I really, really recommend this forward wall stretch.
posted by three_red_balloons at 8:17 PM on June 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Consider replacing your input devices with stuff from a one-stop shop, and raise the screen so that it's upper edge is at your eyelevel.

Grind through a set of recommendations about RSI setup and usage.

Use software to remind you to take breaks periodically.

Try using a foam roller for your back - read up on proper technique.
posted by sebastienbailard at 8:19 PM on June 11, 2014

I went through something similar: I would actually sit more and use the armrests on your chair to support your shoulders until it clears up, and then go back to standing only very gradually. That turned out to be my problem. Also, how do you sleep -- how are your pillows? Mine were too plush and didn't give me enough support & ended up aggravating my issue a lot, so I swapped them out for more supportive ones (you might want to try memory foam/buckwheat) and that totally solved it.
posted by un petit cadeau at 8:20 PM on June 11, 2014

It's worth seeing a physical therapist for this. You can do any amount of stretches and exercises, but if you're not targeting the right muscles they'll have no effect or could even make it worse. I had a similar shoulder problem for a long time, tried stretches, massages, chiropractic, and though these all gave short-term relief they didn't address the root of the problem. Two sessions with a PT who pinpointed the exact part of the specific muscle that needed strengthening and gave me targeted exercises for it, and the problem is mostly gone.
posted by hoist with his own pet aardvark at 8:36 PM on June 11, 2014

I had the same thing in my left shoulder/upper back area as well. The only thing that has helped is weekly (or bi-weekly) massage: after 6 months my knots are completely gone. If your budget will allow for it, I highly recommend a regular massage practice. It's amazing.
posted by hapax_legomenon at 9:13 PM on June 11, 2014

I have this problem. What helped was doing a lot of core and upper back strengthening - I'm seeing a personal trainer for this now. Yoga helped too.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 9:15 PM on June 11, 2014

I had this also, and counterintuitively alleviated the symptoms by lowering my chair, reclining the backrest, and elevating my feet. I still have my monitors at my eyeline and my forearms supported, but more of my upper body weight is being directly supported by furniture.

HR declined my request for a La-Z-Boy, though.
posted by a halcyon day at 9:23 PM on June 11, 2014

I currently have this issue. It has escelatec into painful cervicogenic headaches and constant eye twitching. I'm currently on leave from work and going to physical therapy 3 times a week. I recommend physical therapy if you have insurance/finances. Otherwise, read up on desk ergonomics and neck stretches.
posted by KogeLiz at 9:48 PM on June 11, 2014

This is a constant problem for me. Best stretch I ever found for shoulder-blade area pain is to grab a bar/post/something sturdy (I used a handicap rail at my work entrance) at waist height then sit back like you're sitting in an invisible chair. Turn your head to the left and right to fully stretch out your traps.

I went from pain that was bad enough I couldn't sleep to being more or less fine from a week of doing this whenever I entered my work building.
posted by zug at 9:49 PM on June 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have this problem as well (I'm in my early 30s).

One thing that helps a lot is to hold the "Raised Arms" yoga pose for ten deep breaths as soon as I get up every morning. In fact, sun salutations in general help a lot with this sort of stiffness. Part of me thinks there's actually nothing spiritual about them, they were just invented by yogis with stiff backs.

Like a halcyon day, I also found that using a less ergonomically optimal position helps my symptoms somewhat. I'm sure it's awful for my carpal tunnels, but at least my back doesn't keep me up at night.
posted by Sara C. at 10:01 PM on June 11, 2014

Nthing yoga and massage. To be more specific, twice a week is usually sufficient for me with the yoga, and if I get a good, aggressive (professional) massage every few months or so I feel like it "resets" me and I'm in pretty good shape for a while after.

Random factor to consider: I am near-sighted and therefore it never occurred to me to wear my glasses while working at a computer all day. Long story short it was pointed out to me that I was leaning in toward the screen (and squinting a bit without realizing it). I made a point to wear my glasses all day for about a week and realized my chronic neck and shoulder pain was noticeably lessened (probably because it was easier for me to maintain better posture) and my tension headaches (which were probably a result of the squinting) went away as well.

Foam roller really helps too--there are a ton of YouTube videos if you need help with technique.
posted by lovableiago at 10:55 PM on June 11, 2014

The knots you feel are probably trigger points. You can roll them out as you're doing, zap the muscle with a TENS unit, get it massaged, massage it yourself with a thera-cane, some other things, or you can prevent them from forming.

Which is to say, try changing your pillow. I rotate among three pillows and I swear it makes no sense, but when the acute trapezius problemz strike, swapping the pillow almost always fixes it.
posted by batter_my_heart at 12:02 AM on June 12, 2014

I've had the same problem on-and-off with my right shoulder. Two things that have helped are adjusting the height of my chair and desk according to ergonomic recommendations and getting a 20-minute chair massage once every two weeks.

For temporary relief when I'm really sore, I sit with a microwaveable heat pack (like these) on my shoulder blade area. I also find it helps to lay on my left side and have my partner massage along my right scapula.

About ten years ago, when I was experiencing tingling and numbness in that area, I saw a chiropractor regularly for a few months. Nowadays I would be very skeptical of a chiropractor for reasons described here, but I recognize that he did bring me some temporary relief. I'd say about 25% of my appointments were helpful, while the other 75% could have been replaced with a good massage.

Here are some stretches you can try.
posted by neushoorn at 1:11 AM on June 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

A physical therapist can give you great advice.
posted by Dansaman at 3:15 AM on June 12, 2014

How old is your mattress? If it's over 8 years old, get a new one, and get one of the ones that advertise that they are good for back support.
posted by CathyG at 6:18 AM on June 12, 2014

I had the same problem, and it's gotten a lot better with more exercise. I do a fairly hard push-up intensive workout a couple of times a week and the sharp shoulder/arm pain I used to experience almost daily is totally gone. I still wind up sore or tight every once in a while from hunching over when I'm stressed out, but it's so much better now. PT would be a good idea too.
posted by snaw at 6:54 AM on June 12, 2014

Also pay attention to head position. Not only may you be slouching, but commonly we use computers with our head projected too far forward. It stretches certain muscles in our neck and back and takes some time to adjust the posture back. This helped me more than stretches. Also I switched to a pillow that was lower because my pillow was making the head / neck posture worse when I lay on my back and I wasn't resting it properly at night.
posted by photoexplorer at 8:26 AM on June 12, 2014

Lift weights. Squats and deadlifts. Start light, add weight slowly but consistently.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 10:40 AM on June 12, 2014

Nthing the physical therapist. Mine helped me out a great deal with a similar issue with a couple of simple exercises to strengthen the area.

Do you have your own office, or space where you can sprawl about on the floor? I keep a short foam roller at work for when I need quick relief (~1 foot long, for convenience, though I use a longer one at home), and I'll lay on it lengthwise on the side that is bothering me, letting my shoulders fall back towards the floor and relaxing into it. I avoid laying directly on the spine, of course. Bonus is that I get a bit of a core workout, because I have to lift my bum in the air in order to target the pressure in the trapezius area (similar to the bridge pose in yoga, only you're balancing on a foam roller). (IANAPT)
posted by sweetpotato at 12:20 PM on June 12, 2014

I actually thought this would never work, but I tried it.

I have almost the exact same problem due to an old football/hockey injury to my shoulder and now long hours at a computer. In six month periods, it will suddenly knot up and become a constant pain for a few weeks. I eventually broke down to the point where the pain was enough to become bothersome.

I used a TENS therapy device that I bought at Walgreens. I placed the rubber pads directly on the problem spot, and it massaged out the pain in two sittings. I honestly couldn't believe it worked. I recommend it.
posted by MMALR at 1:01 PM on June 12, 2014

two suggestions:
a. slowly strengthen your muscles via strength training. A pilates dvd or, better yet, instructor, can give you good direction.

b. this book:
Mind Over Back Pain
John Sarno, MD
1982, 124 pages
Berkley Books
New York
posted by JimAbacab at 7:15 AM on August 2, 2014

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