"I Carry All My Tension In My Shoulders"
(September 12, 2017)
I wish I had a dollar for everyone who has ever said to me, “I carry all my stress in my shoulders”. I’d be able to retire to – well, Tampa. Or maybe Rockport, Texas. But all hyperbole aside, I (and everyone else on the front lines of medical and health care) have heard this exact statement probably a million times... well, ok, a LOT.
That is because everyone ‘carries their tension in their shoulders’. It’s part of the normal physiology of stress. Your body may have developed its own unique variation of the standard stress response (like maybe a rash, or nausea, or “Vatican Vibes” suddenly playing in your head). That just means that you are endowed with your own personal bit of extra misery in addition to everything else that happens to your body under stress.
The reason for the universal symptom of tight shoulders is, as is so often the case, your body being smarter than it sometimes appears to be. Stress is also known as the “fight or flight” response because one of those two activities is what your body is preparing to do, and to do either of those things you’re going to need your muscles in a state of readiness. Ever see a couple of animals getting ready to fight? You'll see that shoulder hunch thing. THEY carry all their tension in their shoulders as well.
So muscle tightness and tension, especially in the neck, shoulders and upper back, is just a mundane part of the glorious stress experience we have all come to know so well.
There are two ways to come at solving this problem. The same two approaches that you have in trying to deal with pretty much every problem there is. You can either prevent it or deal with it once you’ve got it.
In terms of prevention, you can avoid getting stressed in the first place by eliminating the stressor. That is a much under-used technique, probably because it involves thinking outside the box – either the box of your own head or the box that our society puts us in with its “you musts” or its “you can’ts”. So giving whatever is stressing you out a frank and fresh look is always a good idea.
Or you can decide that said stressor simply will no longer get to you. This is genuinely do-able with a little practice, and once you’ve learned to do it your only problem will be in trying not to apply it to everything around you.
Anyone with chronically tight painful shoulders is almost certainly going to have to do something along the lines of what I just listed above, because if you are hurting, you are surely way too stressed for good health.
Once those muscles start tightening up, though, here are a few more ideas.
1) You should examine the ergonomics of your daily activities. If you work a lot at the computer and your keyboard or mouse is at the wrong height, or if you drive a lot and the seat and headrest of your vehicle are not properly adjusted -- just to name a couple -- your upper back neck and shoulder muscles are being forced to work way too hard and they will protest, loud, long, and constantly.
2) Just let them go. When you feel your shoulders starting to tighten up, take a deep breath in and let gravity pull them down on the exhale. Then do it again.
3) Get someone to rub them. I fondly remember an evening phone call from the wife of a patient I had seen that day for the first time, asking, “did you tell my husband that I had to rub his shoulders for ten minutes every night?” Of course I couldn’t lie, and said no. I never saw him again. I wonder if anyone else ever did.
But there’s an easy technique for that (shoulder rubbing, that is -- not spouse disposal) which won’t oppress anyone unduly. Look at the potential shoulder rub-ee from behind. That line of muscle between the base of the neck and point of the shoulder? There is a bulgy place about halfway between the two. If you just grip that with your hand and squeeze GENTLY (at least to start with), you can do a great job of relaxing those shoulder muscles quickly and nicely. You pretty much can’t do this on yourself. But two of you can take turns!
4) The long forgotten Bed Buddy. Like this little fellow here:
You can chill it in the freezer OR heat it in the microwave and drape it across the tight part of your shoulders. It feels pretty good, and the weight will remind to you let your shoulders relax.
5) Upper body resistance exercise. This helps prevent your shoulders from tightening up in the first place AND helps relax them if they are already tight. They should be part of everyone’s exercise program anyway.
5) Alcohol and similar substances. This is the most fun of all my suggestions. But I would not go overboard with it. In fact, I would employ it quite judiciously, and only if nothing else worked. With that caveat, knock yourself out (although not literally) because stress is Bad for you, and relieving it (as long as the solution isn’t worse than the problem) is Good.
And of course there is acupuncture (which works on BOTH reducing the stress in the first place and on relaxing muscles, by the way), chiropractic, massage and such similar things.
I would also mention that if you are waking up in the morning with tight painful shoulders or neck, there is probably something wrong with your mattress or (more likely) pillow. Most people have pillows that are too thick.
Hopefully there will be something helpful in all this for you today. Remember, it’s only 103 days ‘til Xmas! Start de-stressing NOW!
--dr. diane holmes
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