Lately I’ve seen patients with a lot of muscle tension in their neck and shoulders. Their shoulders are hunched up under their ears, and their necks so stiff they can barely move them. Severe neck and shoulder stiffness and pain may require physical therapy to alleviate symptoms, but I’d like to share with you the things you can do to both prevent and alleviate neck and shoulder pain.

Causes of Neck and Shoulder Pain

My patients are surprised when I tell them that most neck and shoulder stress/pain is caused by structural stress, simple things we do everyday that can cause neck and shoulder pain:

•Bad posture - Sitting, or standing, with poor posture, or slouching, causes your head to tilt forward putting continual torque on neck and shoulder muscles to prevent your head from sliding forward.

•Raising the shoulder muscles – In our daily routine, we continuously, usually unknowingly, raise the levator scapulae, the major muscles of the shoulders. This creates tension of the neck and base of skull muscles. We do this in a few ways:

1. Typing at a keyboard that is too high – and/or resting your elbows on arm rests of a too low chair while you work at a desk causes your shoulders to ride up. Spend 8 hours everyday, 5 days a week doing this and you can cause pain in your neck and shoulders.

2. Cradling a phone between your ear and shoulder – many of us do this several times a day if our jobs require talking on the phone.

3. Doing overhead work that causes you to lift your arms above your head for long periods of time, like painting ceilings, lifting heavy boxes to high shelves, etc.

4. A constant state of anxiety brought on by chronic stress. This causes us to literally “get our back up”, raising and holding our shoulders in a kind of self-protective posture, much like an animal will arch their back, and put their head down perceiving an attack.

Warning Symptoms of Chronic Neck and Shoulder Pain

Most of us are familiar with that general uncomfortable feeling like a tight band is around our neck and shoulders and perhaps some very sore trigger points, areas that when touched makes us wince. In addition, we might not be able to move our head to either side without causing pain in our necks and shoulders. However, with poor repetitive structural habits, you could have symptoms of compressed nerves in your cervical spine that require a doctor:

•Numbness or tingling in hands and/or fingertips.
•Burning sensations in the muscles of the upper arms.
•Weakness lifting the arms, and/or dropping objects.
•Headaches and/or constant tenderness in the occipital muscles, that band of muscles at the base of your head that extends from ear to ear.

A Simple Exercise To Relieve Tightness

Below is a simple stretching exercise you can do a few times a day while working to relax neck and shoulder muscles:

•Bend head forward, chin on chest, then back to original position.
•Head forward, bend your head to the right, then back to original position; bend to the left, then back to original position.
•Bend head slightly backward, then to the original position.
•Bend head forward, chin to chest, tilt head to the right, then to the left.

Other Things You Can Do

Simple, common sense will help keep your neck and shoulder muscles healthy:

•Observe correct workspace ergonomics for your job. Adjust chair and keyboard height. Use a headset or speakerphone to avoid phone cradling.
•Observe good overhead mechanics. Take frequent stretching breaks to relax the neck and shoulder muscles. Practice correct lifting of heavy items. Most of us don’t have forklifts at home or in our offices, so break down heavy boxes into more manageable sizes.
•Do aerobic exercise like walking, running, rebounding, to reduce tension.
•Drink water. Muscles and joints need adequate water to function properly. At least eight, 8 oz glasses per day, or more depending on your weight, environment (very cold, very hot needs more) and activity.
•Get a massage – acupressure massage done by a professional practitioner can work wonders on tight neck and shoulder muscles, relieving pain.
•A warm bath in Epsom salts will help remove lactic acid build up in stiff and sore muscles that can cause pain. An analgesic cream containing menthol can help relax tight muscles further.
•Calcium and magnesium supplements can also help relieve tension and pain in tight muscles.

Even though you might not be able to remove stress from your life, or completely avoid physical maneuvers that strain your neck and shoulder muscles, you can remove, or greatly alleviate, the tension in your neck and shoulders that can develop. Adhering to good neck and shoulder habits, and spending a few minutes each day doing simple stretching exercises can help you manage muscle tension so it doesn’t continue to be a serious pain in your neck.

Mark Bromson, M.D.

Author's Bio: 

•University of Miami Graduate School-M.B.A (Health Administration)
•University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine
•Harvard College Biology-Graduated Magna cum laude
•Fellowship: Baylor University of Medical Center
•Residency and Internship: The Mount Sinai School of Orthopedic Surgery
•Fellow, American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons
•Fellow, American Orthopedic Foot & Ankle Society
•Fellow, Florida Orthopedic Society