It’s Not What You Think!

Yesterday I worked with five different massage clients. Four of them complained of stiffness, tightness, and/or pain in their right necks and shoulders- the top of the shoulder, around the top inner corner of the scapula, and up the back of the neck. (In case you’re wondering, I do know the technical terms for these body parts, but wish to keep this blog accessible to the average person who might not.) The fifth client just wanted an overall relaxing massage, but I did find tension in that same area on him as well. The four who presented with pain obviously wanted me to focus on the troublesome area, and one of them said she would be delighted if I spent the entire time squeezing her traps because they hurt so much.

This is a common problem in our modern culture. Our bodies were not designed to sit all day at a keyboard, nor to be exposed to constant stress, nor bombarded ceaselessly with visual and auditory stimulation. Shoulders creep up to the ears, chins jut forward, upper backs round. Slouching happens, seemingly naturally, without constant awareness. Chronic postural challenges overburden the antagonist, or opposite, muscles to keep us upright, and the result are painful. Bodywork is an excellent technique for addressing these issues.

Yet… there’s a piece of the puzzle that often gets overlooked. It’s not what you think! Or rather, the problem is often not where we feel the pain. Merely rubbing, squeezing, or pummeling the overstretched and achy muscles does not address the imbalance at its source. Certainly it does provide relief and accelerates the release of toxins and the flow of fresh blood and oxygen, which is important; but targeting the symptom does not allow for any lasting change to occur.

I noticed in all five of my clients yesterday that the muscles on the left side, in the front of their necks were super tight. This is the exact opposite location of the complaint that the right back of the neck hurt. I was personally not surprised to find this. I noticed such patterns in the beginning of my career after doing the first two or three hundred sessions. Yet the clients were incredulous. They had no idea that tightness in their pecs and anterior deltoids and anterior necks were causing the pain. I explained that the body craves structural balance and that overuse in one area creates a reaction in the body that is often felt in the weaker, opposite muscles. (I am reminded of Newton’s Third Law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” and wish I had a better understanding of science so I could tie it in here. Alas, I don’t, so I will leave that to someone else and stick with the experiential data at my disposal.)

These revelations have led me to believe in the power of a full body massage. It’s all connected! An imbalance in the right ankle can ricochet up the body, lodging eventually in the neck or jaw. Imbalance in one area of the body affects the surrounding areas. Sometimes it is the surrounding areas that complain more loudly and capture our attention. Of course it is important to acknowledge the pain that a client is feeling and to address that area. AND it is equally as important, if not more so, to look at the big picture and question why? Why is the right shoulder tight? Where is the tension originating? How can this structure be supported in returning to neutral? Once we begin to explore these arenas, the benefits resulting from bodywork grow exponentially.

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