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Shoulder exercises to help reduce muscular tension and neck pain

Thu, 06 Apr 2017 13:44:00
Article by:
Erik Peper, PhD
Proferror Erik Peper illustrating exercises for reducing neck and shoulder tension. Photo by Jana Asenbrennerova.
Stress, incorrect posture, poor vision and not knowing how to relax may all contribute to neck and shoulder tension. Nearly 66 percent of all adults experience neck pain during their lifetime while 45 percent of girls and 19 percent of boys who are 18 years old report back, neck and shoulder pain.
Stiffness in the neck and shoulders, or an escalating headache at the end of the day, may be the result of craning the head more and more forward, or it can be due to concentrating too long on a computer screen.
Poor posture or compromised vision can also contribute to discomfort; however, in many cases stress is a major factor. Tightening the neck and shoulders is a protective biological response to danger — danger that for thousands of years ago evoked a biological defense reaction so that we could run from or fight from a predator. The predator has now become symbolic — a deadline to meet; having to hurry up; sickness, with too many things to do; anticipating a conflict with your partner or co-worker; worrying how your child is doing in school; or struggling to have enough money to pay for the rent.
Mindset also plays a role. When we’re anxious, angry or frustrated, most of us tighten the muscles at the back of the neck. We can also experience this when insecure, afraid or worrying about what will happen next. Although this is a normal pattern, anticipating the worst can make us stressed. Thus, implementing self-care strategies can help prevent the occurrence of discomfort.
What can you do to free up the neck and shoulders?  
Become aware what factors precede the neck and shoulder tension. For a week, monitor yourself; keep a log during the day, and observe what situations occur that precede the neck and should discomfort.
If the situation is mainly caused by:

Immobility, such as sitting and being captured by the screen; interrupt sitting every 15 to 20 minutes and move. Do such as walking around while swinging your arms.

Ergonomic factors, such as looking down at the computer or laptop screen while working. Change your work environment, such as by using a detached keyboard and raising the laptop screen so that the top of the screen is at eyebrow level.

Emotional factors, Learn strategies to let go of negative emotions and do problem solving. Take a slow deep breath, and as you exhale, imagine the stressor to flow out and away from you. Be willing to explore and change ask yourself “What do I have to have to lose to change?” or “Who or what is that pain in my neck?” or “What am I protecting by being so rigid?”

Regardless of the cause, explore the following exercises to free up the neck and shoulders. Be gentle, do not force, and stop if your discomfort increases. When moving, continue to breathe.

Relaxing your muscles (Adapted by permission from Reproduced by permission from: Gorter, R. & Peper, E., “Fighting Cancer: A Nontoxic Approach to Treatment,” 2011.)

Pretest: Stand up and give yourself enough space, so that when you lift your arms to shoulder level and rotate, you do not touch anything. Continue to stand in the same spot during the exercise as shown in figures 1a and 1b.

Lift your arms and hold them out, so that they are at shoulder level, positioned like airplane wings.
Gently rotate your arms to the left as far as you can without discomfort. Look along your left arm to your fingertips and beyond to a spot on the wall and remember that spot. Rotate back to center and drop your arms to your sides, and relax.
With your arms at your sides, lift your shoulders toward your ears while you keep your neck relaxed. Feel the tension in your shoulders, and hold your shoulder up for five seconds. Let your shoulders drop and relax. Then relax even more. Stay relaxed for 10 seconds.
Repeat this sequence, lifting, dropping, and relaxing your shoulders two more times. Remember to keep breathing; and each time you drop your shoulders, relax even more after they have dropped.
Repeat the same sequence, but this time, very slowly lift your shoulders so that it takes five seconds to raise them to your ears while you continue to breathe. Keep relaxing your neck and feel the tension just in your shoulders. Then hold the tension for a count of three. Now relax your shoulders very slowly so that it takes five seconds to lower them. Once they are lowered, relax them even more and stay relaxed for five seconds. Repeat this sequence two more times.
Now raise your shoulders quickly toward your ears, feel the tension in your upper shoulders, and hold it for the count of five. Let the tension go and relax. Just let your shoulders drop. Relax, and then relax even more.
Posttest. Lift your arms up to the side so that they are at shoulder level and are positioned like airplane wings. Gently rotate without discomfort to the left as far as you can while you look along your left arm to your fingers and beyond to a spot on the wall.
Almost everyone reports that when they rotate the last time, they rotated significantly further than the first time. The increased flexibility is the result of loosening your shoulder muscles.
Wiggle and shake your body many times during the day.  The movements can be done surreptitiously, such as by moving your feet back and forth in circles or tapping the feet to the beat of your favorite music; slightly arching or curling your spine, sifting the weight on your buttock from one to the other; dropping your hands along your side while moving and rotating your fingers and wrists; rotating your head and neck in small unpredictable circles; or gently bouncing your shoulders up and down as if you are giggling. Every 10  minutes, wiggle to facilitate blood flow and muscle relaxation.
Shake and bounce
Stand up, bend your knees slightly, and let your arms hang along your trunk.  Gently bounce your body up and down by bending and straightening your knees. Allow the whole body to shake and move for about one minute like a raggedy Ann doll. Then stop bouncing and alternately reach up with your hand and arm to the ceiling and then let the arm drop. Be sure to continue to breathe.
When students and employees change their environment and integrate many movements during the day, they report a significant decrease in neck and shoulder pain in health and an increase in energy and health.  As one employee reported after practicing during the day at work, he no longer felt tired at the end of the day and noted, “Now, there is life after five.”
Optional exercises for shoulder awareness
Sit comfortably with your hands on your lap. Allow your jaw to hang loose, and breathe diaphragmatically. Continue to breathe slowly as you do the following:

Shrug, raising your shoulders towards your ears to 70 percent of maximum effort, and hold them up for about 10 seconds. (Note the sensations of tension.)

Let your shoulders drop and relax for 10 to 20 seconds.

Shrug, raising your shoulders towards your ears to 50 percent of maximum effort and hold them up for about 10 seconds. (Note the sensations of tension.)

Let your shoulders drop and relax for 10 to 20 seconds.

Shrug, raising your shoulders towards your ears to 25 percent of maximum effort, and hold them up for about 10 seconds. (Note the sensations of tension.)

Let your shoulders drop and relax for 10 to 20 seconds.

Shrug, raising your shoulders towards ears to 5 percent of maximum effort and hold them up for about 10 seconds. (Note the sensations of tension.)

Let your shoulders drop and relax for 10 to 20 seconds.

Pull your shoulders down to 25 percent of maximum effort and hold them up for about 10 seconds. (Note the sensations of tension.)

Allow your shoulders to come back up and relax for 10 to 20 seconds.
Remember to relax your shoulders completely after each incremental tightening. If you tend to hold your breath while raising your shoulders, gently exhale and continue to breathe. When you return to work, check in occasionally with your shoulders, and ask yourself if you can feel any of the sensations of tension.  If so, drop your shoulders and relax for a few seconds before resuming your tasks.
See the following website for some easy to do neck and shoulder stretches: http://greatist.com/move/stretches-for-tight-shoulders
Erik Peper is a professor at the Institute of Holistic Health Studies, Department of Health Education, San Francisco State University. The link to his blog is www.peperperspective.com, and his website is www.biofeedbackhealth.org. He can be contacted by email at erik.peper@gmail.com.

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