Yesterday, I was asked to contribute some advice to an article about dealing with neck and shoulder tension during isolation and the pandemic.
In thinking about my response, I sat down and compiled a list of the key things I have been sharing with clients for years.
(If you have any kind of injury or health condition, be sure to always seek appropriate medical advice as needed).
Here are some of my top tips that come to mind for effectively dealing with neck and shoulder tension.
1. Hydrate! A well-hydrated body is key to healthy soft tissue and flexible muscles. I recommend sipping water with lemon or herbal tea throughout the day.
2. Take mini-breaks to stretch. These don’t have to be long or even interrupt your work flow… a minute or two can be surprisingly effective and help you overall efficiency level.
3. “Pause and orient”. This is a practice that comes from Somatic Experiencing, and it helps you ground and connect to the present. Take a moment first simply to pause and notice your breath. Feel your body against the chair you are sitting on. Next, very slowly turn your head and neck from one side to the other. It’s important that you really feel the muscles in the neck as you turn them, and allow your eyes to really take in what you see. Go very, very slowly from the right to left and back again. After one or two turns, pause and once again notice your body and breath. This simple sequence provides a “reset” of the nervous system.
4. To gently stretch and release the neck muscles: tilt your right ear slowly towards your right shoulder until you feel a stretch in the left side of the neck. At the same time, gently reach your left hand towards the floor to increase the stretch. Pause for a couple easy breaths. Then, gently turn your nose to point down towards the floor and feel the stretch move towards the back of the neck. Pause for two or three breaths here. Repeat on the other side.
5. Don’t ignore related areas. When working with muscle pain and tension in one spot, the normal tendency is to focus right where you feel the pain. However, it’s very common for other muscle groups to be compensating, and contributing to patterns of pain and tension. I find that two areas very often involved with neck and shoulder tension are the rotator cuff muscles, and the pectorals. (See exercises below).
6. For the rotator cuffs: the following is an exercise to release the infraspinatus, one of the four rotator cuff muscles. To start, you’ll lie flat on your back and have a ball handy (a tennis ball or similar size therapy ball will do nicely). Place the ball directly behind the shoulder blade, and rest on top of it so that the weight of your body sinks onto the ball. Allow the pressure from the ball to sink gently into the muscles on the back of the shoulder blade. Hold for 3 minutes, breathing easily and deeply. Repeat on the other shoulder.
7. To release the pectoral (chest) muscles: stand facing a wall, and take your tennis ball (or therapy ball) and place it in front of your chest, beneath the collarbone and just inward from your armpit. Lean gently into the ball, with the wall for support, and feel the muscles in the chest area start to release. Gently hold for 1-3 minutes, breathing easily and deeply. Repeat on the other side.
8. A quick “cross-crawl” is a fantastic exercise after doing any of these practices to help your body and nervous system integrate the work without overload. You can do this standing or seated- simply bring your hand or elbow to your opposite knee and then repeat the other side. If you were standing, it would look like “marching in place”, but you can also do it seated at your desk to help the brain settle and re-set. Remember to breathe easily and deeply.
9. Take care of your nervous system. Our nervous systems, where we hold and process all of our experiences and stressful events, are a primary factor in keeping our bodies healthy, relaxed, and functioning at their highest & best. Consider learning more about how your nervous system functions, and perhaps working with a wellness professional who specializes in this. Somatic Experiencing is the modality I work with for healing, regulating, and releasing trauma from the nervous system, and one of the fortuitous “side effects” of releasing trauma on a body-based level is a profound release of physical tension, as the system comes out of old fight/ flight or freeze patterning and into the present.
10. Think big-picture. It’s rarely one single thing that is causing neck and shoulder tension (although yes, hunching over computers will certainly play a significant role!) But, there are generally many factors contributing to our overall health and wellness. Are you making the healthiest and most supportive choices on a day to day basis for your body & mind? Some areas to consider: sleep hygiene & habits, healthy eating choices (including fresh fruits and veggies and lots of leafy greens), adequate relaxation, fresh air & sunshine, deep breathing, meditation and mindfulness practices, community and support from loved ones, creative expression, and your balance of work and play. Making supportive choices in all of these areas will contribute to our overall health, resulting in less internal stress and strain and allowing our bodies to be well and thrive.