Many of us live with permanently stiff shoulders or a neck that seizes up from time to time. Our modern lifestyle is a major culprit, with computer work (especially on laptops) putting a lot of strain on the neck and shoulders. Out-of-control stress levels don’t help either. One of the worst environments for neck and shoulder pain is a high-pressure work environment with badly set-up computers and cold air flowing down on you from air conditioning. With this sort of combination of stress, poor ergonomics and the tendency to tense up the shoulder muscles in response to cold, it’s not surprising that so many people suffer from stiff neck and shoulders.
Other things that can trigger neck and shoulder pain are prolonged driving, freehand writing or drawing, occupations involving a lot of repetitive use of the arms (hairdressing comes to mind), and playing some musical instruments.
So what can be done? Obviously it’s important to address anything in your lifestyle that might be contributing, which could involve a rethink of your work or leisure patterns. I’ve included a list of other tips at the end.
But what if your shoulders and neck are still sore after doing everything you can to relax them? This is where acupuncture comes in.
Japanese acupuncture uses several needling techniques to melt tension in the neck and shoulders. Another technique that is great for neck and shoulder pain is moxibustion – the use of a warming herb on the tight, painful areas. Cupping is also very useful. But much of the treatment is done away from the local painful region– as it is just as important to treat the constitutional pattern that Oriental medicine sees as causing disruption to the flow of energy, as we see this as underlying the neck and shoulder pain. This ensures that treatments will have a lasting effect.
We usually see an improvement within 4-6 weekly treatments, and when this happens we scale back the frequency of sessions as your body “relearns” this state of reduced tension. Eventually most people will just need the occasional top-up session every few months or so during periods of particularly intense activity or stress.
Tips for relieving neck and shoulder stiffness:
- Make sure your desk is properly set up. Many offices these days have ergonomic guidelines and it’s also possible to have an expert review your set-up.
- Give your neck and shoulders a break by taking lots of breaks from computer work, or other intense activities like writing freehand, drawing, music practice or driving. Aim to have a break where you get up, walk around and stretch after every 20 min of typing etc.
- If at all possible, avoid sitting in air-conditioning, or wear a scarf (or a top with a collar that covers your neck).
- Warmth helps most people with this sort of pain, so try hot showers or heat packs.
- Try to build some type of relaxation into your day, like meditation, yoga or Tai-Chi. Another really useful strategy is to focus on becoming aware of shoulder tension as it builds up and repeatedly and deliberately relax and drop your shoulders. Tricky to do at first, but it gets easier with time.
- It is also often possible to strengthen other muscles in the upper body so that your traps don’t take all the strain. If you go to a gym, ask one of the trainers to show you how to strengthen these muscles.