Shoulder Boulders

Got shoulder pain? Here's relief.

Who today doesn't have tight, sore shoulders? They seem to go with modern life. The problem is worse now because so many of us spend so many hours sitting at computers. The stress of the work we do at computers, combined with poor posture, eye strain, and repetitive motion, all add up to chronic tension and pain that leaves the neck, head, back, and shoulders feeling like they're carrying large, heavy rocks. I call this condition "shoulder boulders." Fortunately, there are methods of self-massage and movement that can effectively reduce this pain. They are easy to do and pleasurable in the same way that massage is.

What Causes Shoulder Pain?

A major source of shoulder pain is the tension caused by rushing. We think we have too much to do and have too little time to do it. When we incessantly hurry, we tend to breathe fast and shallow, as opposed to slow and deep. During fast, shallow breathing, the rib cage and shoulders never completely relax; they do not return to a relaxed, open position. The muscles become chronically contracted and muscle fibers shorten, adhere to one another and form "knots." One solution to relieve shoulder pain, therefore, is to relax, let go of some of your "shoulds" and try not to over-schedule your life. Most importantly, remember to breathe fully.

Another frequent cause of shoulder pain is cradling a telephone with one shoulder. This causes chronic contraction of neck and shoulder muscles. A telephone headset is an inexpensive solution. Slouching can also give you shoulder pain. Slouching causes forward rounding of the shoulders, which in turn compresses the low back, neck, chest, diaphragm and digestive organs, all of which contribute to tension in the back, neck, and shoulders. When the shoulders are rounded forward, the head, which weighs about 15 pounds (equal to a bowling ball) is thrust forward. Consequently, instead of being supported by the sturdy bony structure of the spine, it must be carried by the softer muscles of the neck. Muscles were not designed for this job. Each additional inch forward is equivalent to 10 extra pounds of weight. Straining to carry this weight, the scalene muscles at the sides of the neck contract and can pinch the nerves that affect the chest, upper back, shoulders, arms, and hands, causing pain in these areas. The solution: Don't slouch. Sit up straight, relaxed, with your chest open and shoulders back. Remember to breathe deeply and slowly.

How Bodywork Helps

In addition to the above, you can get relief from shoulder pain with self-massage and therapeutic movement. One form of bodywork, called Nuance, combines postural awareness, deep breathing, massage of tight muscles, gentle movement and stretching. These techniques help release tight muscles as well as psycho-physical holding patterns that are caused by trauma or disuse. They "remind" the muscle of its full range of movement.

One of the best ways to release tight shoulders and relieve shoulder pain is to simply lie on your back with your lower legs supported by a pillow, blankets or a sofa, and with your arms on the floor in an open, up position, forming a U-shape around the head. This position relaxes the back and head, opens the chest, and rotates the shoulder joints outward. If you did nothing but rest in this position for a few minutes every day with relaxed and full breathing, it would bring relief to your shoulder muscles.

The Basic Position may be modified slightly in two ways. One, to support the curve of the neck, place a small, rolled towel underneath it. Or, to increase the opening of the chest and the outward rotation of the shoulders, place a blanket, rolled towel, or foam roll (4 – 6" in diameter) lengthwise under the mid and upper back.

Three Techniques in the Basic Position.

In the Basic Position (without the neck or back roll), you can do the following Nuance techniques that will help to release tight, painful shoulders.

Important tips to remember:

These are not exercises in the usual sense. There is no prescribed time or number of repetitions. They are more like a massage, an exploration of what feels good. You do it until it feels better or until you feel an impulse to work on something else. Most importantly, if something hurts, do less. Pain is your body's way of saying "That's too much."

1. Turn the head to the right side. Look up toward the top of your head rotating your head slightly upward. Look down toward your shoulder rotating your head slightly downward. Look back toward the floor rotating your head more to the right. Repeat this sequence turning the head to the left.

2. Using the right hand, reach to the left shoulder and squeeze or press the band of muscle (the upper trapezius) along the top of the shoulder. Most people locate sensitive, slightly painful areas, or "ah" spots, which are areas that, if you massage and squeeze them, will release knots and tension.

3. While holding the muscle, move your free arm and hand around in as many ways as possible, including spirals. Close, open, and wiggle the fingers. After you've completed this, then do the opposite side with your other hand.

4. With the fingertips of one hand, press the muscle attachments above and/or below the collarbone. While continuing to press the muscles, turn your head from side to side, tilt it back, and lower it, moving your chin toward your chest. Continuing to hold the points above or below the collarbone, move your free arm and hand as in #2. Repeat this sequence on the other side.

Standing and Sitting Techniques

The above techniques can also be done in a standing or sitting position. In addition, the following techniques, done in a standing position, isolate and stretch the primary muscles by immobilizing nearby "helper" muscles. Exercise #3 is a good technique to relieve tension while sitting at a desk.

1. Hold a weight (can be any one or two pound object, such as an exercise weight or a bag of grain or beans) in your right hand while allowing the arm to drop straight down at your side. Continuing to hold the weight, turn your head to the left, slowly tilting and stretching the muscles of the right shoulder and neck. Repeat on the left side.

2. Place the palm of the right hand against a wall or doorjamb. Turn the body toward the left, twisting and stretching the torso and opening the chest and right shoulder. Different muscles are emphasized depending on the height of your hand placement. Repeat on the other side.

3. Stand or sit in a comfortable position. Slowly and gently, bring your shoulder to your ear, massaging the muscles of the shoulder and neck.

Tools for Self-Massage

Most health food stores have self-massage tools that can be very helpful. One of the most fun tools is called the "Bonger." A Bonger is a tennis-sized ball on a handle that has a springy action. Hitting or "bonging" the muscle stimulates circulation in the area, which will help release contracted muscle fibers. Try a "Bonger-break" instead of a coffee break. This will relieve tension and make you more alert without the caffeine crash that comes later from drinking coffee. Bongers and tennis balls can also be used to apply trigger point pressure to muscles. Place the ball in strategic places underneath you while lying down. Trigger points are easily found because they are a little painful. It should be a "yeah, that's the spot" feeling, rather than an "ouch!" feeling. If it hurts so much that you can't relax and breathe into the pressure, try a softer surface underneath (a bed or blanket) or softer ball such as a juggling ball.

Rezakkah Norinshas been a licensed massage therapist for 11 years with practices now in Arlington and Roslindale, MA. She developed and now teaches Nuance Bodywork, a self-care technique combining therapeutic movement and self-massage.