Relieving Upper Back, Neck, and Shoulder Pain

Probably the top complaint I hear from clients is that of chronic and intense discomfort in their upper backs, necks, and shoulders. You’re probably familiar with the nagging sensation, usually beyond reach, often between the shoulder blades. You know, that spot that occupies way too much of your attention and won’t go away no matter how you try to work it out.

The reason that pushing on the spot that hurts (with your own fingers, a friend’s elbow, or a massage tool) doesn’t resolve the pain is that the pain is often a symptom of imbalanced posture in the upper body. Treating the symptom might feel good and bring temporary relief (hey, there’s nothing wrong with that!) but until the root cause is addressed, it won’t be very effective. It’s rather like running around putting out fires rather than taking the matches away from the toddler.

In today’s society, many conditions can cause the head to drift forward of the body.

  • The near-constant rushing and stress that has become common in our culture, and the physiological tightening of muscles that results.
  • The time spent with arms forward of the body: typing, driving, sewing, drawing, holding and nursing babies, etc
  • The long hours spent looking at screens
  • The tendency to be mentally inhabiting the next moment and the next place rather than being present here and now
  • The desire to energetically protect one’s heart
  • Feeling unsafe and wishing to hide emotionally
  • Every other scenario that induces slouching or hunching

Ideally the ears should hover over the shoulders, allowing the vertebrae to support the weight of the head. When the head is chronically positioned forward of the torso, those tired and achy muscles of the upper back are working overtime to hold the head up. Muscles on the front of the neck and shoulders become shortened over time, and those on the back become overstretched.

forward-head-posture

This image comes courtesy of Erik Dalton, a world renowned bodyworker, educator, and creator of Myoskeletal Alignment Techniques. It shows the simple physics of how the weight of a 12 pound head increases to 42 pounds when it is held 3 inches forward. Those muscles are cramped and fatigued because they’re overworked and overextended! Pummeling and poking them is not the answer.

The remedy is in returning the head to a more neutral position. The work of the massage therapist is primarily in releasing the tight anterior neck, chest, and shoulder muscles. Some therapists would argue that working on the muscles of the upper back only make the problem worse! I personally believe that this is an extreme view, and that some soothing Swedish massage of the back can help by releasing trigger points and encouraging circulation. The most important step, however, is one of awareness and continuously correcting posture throughout the day.

I’ve helped clients to overcome this chronic problem that had plagued them for decades. Through a combination of managing posture and stress, targeted stretching on a daily basis, and receiving a maintenance massage once or twice each month, they’re able to experience freedom from near-debilitating pain. Once they stopped treating the symptom and began working with the cause, the results came quickly.

If you’re frustrated that your valiant efforts are not producing desired effects, consider that you might not be treating the source of the problem. Put down the fire extinguisher and gently but firmly remove the matches from the hands of the pyromaniac toddler.

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