How to reduce neck and shoulder tension: three simple top tips

Do you suffer with sore shoulders? Muscle tension around your upper back and neck muscles? Headaches that radiate from the back of your head into your eye socket? Rounded shoulders? Poor posture?

It’s a common problem upper shoulder aches and pains.

It is often due to poor posture of your head position on top of your body, the way you hold your shoulders, sitting for prolonged periods of time, squashing your ribcage down onto your abdomen or holding your shoulders up around your ears.

9/10 times, tension around our shoulders is due to stress which we may or may not consciously be aware of. Time pressures, workload, overload, anxiety, depression, feeling frustrated, angry or even just a bit fed up can all contribute to your muscles around your upper back and lower neck becoming tight, sore and difficult to ease.

Don’t you hate it when you roll your shoulders back expecting instant release only to feel more sore? Movement isn’t always the answer when you are so tight so what is?…

  1. Become AWARE of your POSTURE.

Here are some simple TIPS to follow.

a) Keep your head on top of your body.

Be mindful of your head position when texting, typing, sitting, cooking – any activity where you are still for a prolonged period of time.

A head forwards position causes your muscles at the back and neck to lengthen and this causes strain to your lower neck bones and overload the muscles. Think Quasi-Modo – carry on with this posture and you will follow in his postural footsteps and likely end up with a hunch back posture. No one wants that.

b) Keep your collar bones wide.

Be aware of your shoulders rounding forwards. This causes your front chest muscles to tighten and shorten, increases upper back stiffness and overloads those upper shoulder and neck muscles again.

Improve your posture

Perfect your posture – Marie Fell The Pilates Physio

Holding your shoulders in front of your body will massively INCREASE your muscle tension and lead to pain in some instances. The stiffness it causes in your upper back also exacerbates the problem areas and instead of just having muscle tension you now have spinal stiffness which is why movement alone sometimes doesn’t relieve or release your woes.

c) Lower your shoulders away from your ears.

Shoulders that sit up around your ears are a surefire way to cause excessive muscle tension in your upper trapezius muscles. It’s common for one side to be tighter than the other but given time they both become sore and tight.

Learn to recognise when your body adopts this position and then gently lower them back down towards your mid back. Think of a waterfall flowing down your back or chocolate melting. You want to visualise a “V” shape where both shoulder blades are gliding down and in to reactivate your lower trapezius muscles. These are often underworked and inactive if you over use your upper trapezius portion of the muscle.

2. Start to recognise WHAT causes STRESS and your TENSION to increase in your shoulders.

For me it was always writing patient notes during and after consultations. I used to sit with my head forwards, intently listening and scribble away lots of their important information which caused me to hold tension in my lower neck muscles. By the end of the day they were solid.

I also used to feel my shoulders creeping up if I chopped a lot of veggies or meat at the end of the day. I don’t particularly enjoy cooking so tension always crept up then, especially after a day at work.

At times, I even went to bed with my shoulders in my ears particularly when overloaded with a huge to do list. It was no wonder why I struggled to get to sleep.

All these things contributed to my neck and shoulder tension tenfold.

Body awareness - Marie Fell The Pilates Physio

Learning to recognise these things helped me learn the WHAT factor which enabled me to do something about it.

3. How are you breathing?

Where is your breath entering and exiting your body? If you are stressed you are more likely to breathe shallow or apically. This is where you breath into the top of your lungs around your first or second rib which ly above and adjacent to your collar bones.

Breathing short, shallow breaths in and out of your lungs increases tension and stress around your upper shoulder muscles.

If we can learn to recognise this style of breathing and lengthen and deepen our breaths we can help contribute to reduce stress and tension in our shoulder quite a substantial amount.

There is a brilliant Pilates exercise that incorporates all of the above and it’s called Breast Stroke Prep 1. It focusses on reducing the shoulders away from the ears and opening up your collar bones wide. Using your breath to help the exercise flow also reduces your apical breathing and allows you to get that brilliant mind and body work out that Pilates can bring.

Watch my youtube video for the correct sequence of movement and where people  make common mistakes during this exercise. Learn how to correct them and exercise safely.

If you find lying on your stomach increase your neck aches and pains then you may need to perform this exercise in sitting instead.

Once you improve your posture, your awareness of bad body positions that can cause increase tension you will gradually start to reduce your aches and pains.

If you are super tight in your upper shoulder muscles you could try getting a massage to help release muscle tension and if that doesn’t ease some of it I would recommend acupuncture or cupping to get deeper into releasing the muscle tightness.

Working on your upper spine extension can also massively help. So if you sit rounded or find you can’t lift your arms fully above your head then mobilise your spine to reduce stiffness and increase mobility.

The Pilates Physio Blog

Your neck and shoulders will thank you for it!

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