Zoom has been absolutely amazing to help keep people connected this year, but all the screen time can have an impact on the shoulders. I put together this BIG guide to neck and shoulder relief. Have a read through and try out the stretches. Save this for the next time you notice your shoulders sending you messages that it's time to unZoom them.
Pain in the Neck The neck particularly tends to be very sensitive to stress. Spending all day hunched over a keyboard, phone, or in the car exacerbates this tendency. Many people also have the tendency to tighten the muscles in the neck and shoulders as a reaction to anxiety and stressful situations. As a result, pain in these areas can become a long-term issue and can actually contribute to stress and anxiety.
Trapeze Act Tight shoulders are often caused by tight trapezius muscles. This large muscle runs from the back of your head to your lower thoracic spine (mid-back) and also connects to the shoulder blade. Because of its location, it supports the weight of your arm and affects rotation and movements of the scapula (shoulder blade). Pain in the upper back is usually the result of tension in that space between your shoulder blades – your rhomboid muscles. Often caused by slouching or having the shoulders rounded forward while working at your desk or looking at the phone or tablet. This position when held over long periods of time also leads to pain in the chest and front body – in the pectoralis minor muscle. As a consequence, these muscles become shorter and tighter since they are staying in this shortened position. At the same time, the rhomboids in the back become strained and inflamed from constantly working to pull the shoulder blades back into proper alignment.
Tight chest muscles also may cause tension in the levator scapulae (no, not a Harry Potter spell but a muscle in the back and side of the neck responsible for lifting your shoulder blades). This is why it’s important to maintain flexibility in the chest muscles by stretching and opening the front body, as well as working on strengthening the back muscles to release tension and relieve your neck and shoulder pain.
Rounded Shoulders and Forward Head Posture Rounded shoulders and forward head posture are a problem for many people. We tend to sit for hours leaning over the computer, phone, and tablet. The problem originates not from the shoulders themselves, but from the back. It’s an imbalance called upper cross syndrome. With upper cross syndrome, a tightness in your upper chest (pectoral muscles) pulls your shoulders forward. This is intensified by weakness in the upper back. To exacerbate this upper back weakness even more, sometimes we also have a forward head position. When your head is not positioned directly over your shoulders but jutted forward (in flexion), then your neck and upper back are strained to hold this weight up. I have an additional head tilt thrown into the mix, which is a whole additional set of imbalances. But that one is rare. Some have all these issues combined (me!) and some have a few of them. We can work on these imbalances in strength and flexibility to improve posture and reduce pain and fatigue.
Stretches that can help Taking a few breaks throughout the day to stretch and strengthen your upper back, shoulders, and neck can really help. These exercises can help release tension and reverse some of the posture and muscle imbalances that arise from our daily patterns of movement. Try these out and let me know which ones you like! Upward Facing Plank Variation This is a pose that opens up the chest and stretches the inner arm muscles as well. Sit on the floor with your knees bent. Place your hands on the floor behind you – out wider than your hips – with your fingers pointing toward you. Keeping your elbows bent slightly, draw your shoulders back, lift and open your upper chest, raise your hips. Keep your head lifted looking straight up.
Standing Stretch at the Wall Stand next to a wall with your feet parallel and comfortably separated. Place the fingertips of one hand on the wall at shoulder height with your arm fully extended. Place your other hand on your hip. Cup your fingers so that only the fingertips touch the wall and rotate your arm outward slightly so that your thumb points upward. Keep your shoulder aligned with your hand and begin to lift and open your chest with your breath, rolling your collarbones back. Gently twisting from the waist, turn just your upper body, extending through your arm to the fingertips, as if the wall were moving away from you. You may feel the stretch at any point along the line from the chest and the armpit down through the entire length of the inner arm to the thumb. This is a deep stretch that may tingle, which points to a lengthening of the deeper fascial tissue. Just breathe. The tingling is normal and okay, as long as it does not become a sharp pin-point pain. This stretch reaches some of the deepest levels of tension in the arm and shoulder and opens the flow of circulation to the entire area. Repeat on the other side.
Puppy Pose Come onto your fingertips with both hands far out to the front and a little wider than your shoulders. Place your knees on the ground and send your sitting bones back and up. At the same time, let your chest melt toward the ground and create length in the side body. Move the pelvis further back and lift your armpit up but let the chest sink down. Maintain this pose for a few breaths then release and come into a table-top position.
Standing Forward Bend Stand with your feet hip-width apart. On an exhale, bend forward, sliding your hands down the backs of your legs, bringing your chest toward your thighs and tucking your chin. On an inhale, lead with the chest as you lift it away from the belly and slightly lift your chin. Bring your torso halfway up and your hands alongside your knees and squeeze your shoulder blades together, hugging your elbow into your sides. On an exhale, bend forward, sliding your hands back toward your heels and relaxing your shoulder blades while tucking your chin. Repeat 4 times.
Easy Seated Twist Sit with your legs crossed and spine straight. Place your left hand on your right knee, and your right hand on the ground behind you, right arm externally rotated and fingers pointing away from your tailbone. On an exhale, twist your torso to the right while turning your head gently (not wrenching in the neck) in the same direction. Stay here and inhale. On the next exhale, keep turning your shoulders right while you turn your head left. On an inhale, extend your spine vertically, very slightly untwisting. With each subsequent exhale, gently lean your head toward the left shoulder, further stretching the right side of the neck. Continue for 8 breaths total, then repeat on the other side.
Supine Twist Lie down on your back. Bend your knees. Draw your right knee into your chest, keeping the left leg extended. Cross your right knee over onto the left side of your body. Open your arms out wide to a T. Turn your head to the right if it feels comfortable to the neck. Add movement with the breath: take a full breath, and as you breath out, roll over and take the right arm over to meet the left. As you breath in, open the right arm back out to the right. Repeat 3 times. Switch to the other side.
Neck circles Come to seated with one leg in front of the other. Interlace the fingers behind the back to make a fist. Nestle the fist into the right hip. Take the left ear down toward the left shoulder. Make slow smooth half circles on this side. Rolling into any areas that feel sticky or grippy. Bring the head to center and repeat on the other side.
Side bends From seated, breath in to bring the right arm up and over into a side bend. Take 3 breaths on this side. On an inhale, come back to center and repeat on the left.
Tabletop with hip circles Come into tabletop position on all fours with shoulders over wrists and hips over knees. Rotate the hips in all directions: take them forward, to the right, down to the heels, and over to the left. Rotate the hips in one direction a few times, then the other direction a few times.
Cat/Cow Staying on hands and knees bring your hips back directly over your knees and your shoulders over your wrists. If your knees are uncomfortable, place a folded blanket crosswise in the middle of your mat to cushion your knees. As you inhale, gradually arch your spine into a backbend shape (Cow Pose). Start by moving from your pelvis, lifting your tailbone and sitting bones up as your pelvis tips forward over your leg bones, relaxing your belly and lower back down, and lifting your chest and head forward. As you exhale, gradually round your spine toward the ceiling (Cat Pose). Start by moving from your pelvis, turning your tailbone and sitting bones down as your pelvis tips backward, hollowing your belly towards your spine, and releasing your neck and head toward the floor and looking back to your knees. When you’re ready to inhale, you’ll move back into Cow Pose. Repeat this Cat/Cow flow 5 more times.
Shoulder flossing front and back with strap For this one you'll need a yoga strap or a rolled-up towel. Stand tall with feet hip-width apart. Keep your abs tight and your spine stable. Hold the strap or towel in front of hips with a wide grip, making sure your arms are wide enough to remain straight throughout the move. Keeping the arms straight, sweep them forward and up overhead. Continue moving arms behind you until the strap touches the lower back. Reverse the action to complete one rep. Repeat 5 times.
Child’s Pose with palms up Starting from table top, on the exhale, release your knees to the floor, pull your hips back to your heels, and rest your forehead on the floor. Bring your arms stretched in front of you and turn the palms facing up. This will externally rotate the shoulders and help increase the shoulder stretch.
Knees-to-Chest Pose Lie on your back with both knees bent toward your chest, feet off the floor. Place a hand on each knee. On an exhale, pull your thighs gently but progressively toward your chest, pressing your low back down into the mat. Keep your shoulders relaxed and your chin slightly tucked. On an inhale, straighten your arms and return to the starting position. Repeat 8 times.
Practice Tips Coordinate your breath to the movement. The breath is a way to help you create and feel the movement in your spine. It helps enable you to successfully modify movement patterns that are causing you pain. We’re not looking to master these poses, but to use them as tools to develop a deeper understanding of what’s going on in the body so you can move better and feel better.
Never steamroll through any sharp, stabbing or throbbing pains during or after practice (or other times of the day for that matter). Taking short movement breaks throughout the day can help, too, as you break up the patterns that end up causing neck and shoulder pain and help your body get back into alignment.
I often feel the difference right away in my body, and the ease in pain and tension results in an easing of the stress response in the body as well as in the mind. How did these movements go for you? Did you notice a difference?