HOW TO RELIEVE A TIGHT NECK AND SHOULDERS | CONOR | FEBRUARY 2017

A stiff neck/shoulder can be extremely uncomfortable and painful.  The cause is often a simple case of tight, stiff muscles – and there are a myriad of ways to address this issue yourself without seeking professional help. 

How did they become tight?

Tight muscles are generally due to preventable (correctable) issues:

Stress: many people hold their stress around their neck and shoulder region, causing these muscles to shorten and stay tight.

Work place ergonomics: a chair which is too high or low in relation to the computer screen can cause the head position to alter.  In turn, the muscles around the neck have to work much harder – causing fatigue and stiffness. 

Muscle Imbalances: if one hasn’t the muscle awareness or capacity to keep the shoulders depressed (when appropriate), the upper trapezius (top of shoulder) will consistently become used and become a shortened muscle. 

What to do about it?

Firstly, one must understand what is happening when the muscle is tight and why it stays tight.  The nerves in the muscle are being activated for one of the above reasons (or another), and cause the muscle to tighten. Once the muscle is tight (and short) the blood flow can become restricted, meaning that the lactic acid (and other metabolites) cannot be flushed away efficiently.  This then becomes a self-reciprocating circle where the muscle stays tight because of the high concentration of metabolites, and it cannot relax because it is too tight to allow blood to flush them away. Once this occurs, external interventions are needed.   

Here are 5 tips to help:

Contract/Relax

By stretching the muscles (i.e moving your neck away from the tight part of your shoulder), you will be attempting to lengthen these muscles.  Usually this only partially helps as the muscle is very ‘neurally’ switched on and the nerve will force the muscle to return to its pre-lengthened state.  To combat this, we have to effectively ‘turn off’ the nerves responsible for keeping that muscle tight.  By stretching and then contracting the same muscle (i.e move head away from tight muscles, then move it towards the tight muscle whilst your hand acts as resistance), the nerve will ‘turn off’ and will allow the muscle to stay in a more lengthened state.


Stretch Neck    Contract+Relax

Pull your head away from the tight muscle for 15 seconds before pushing your head into your hand on the other side for 8 seconds (only 30% effort – not all out).  Repeat the above 3 times.

 

Heat Pad

Using a heat pad on the muscles will cause hyperaemia (increased blood flow) in that area. This increased blood flow will help the muscle to relax by flushing out some or all of the unwanted metabolites being stored in the tight muscle. Once these metabolites are removed, the muscle will be more able to relax and loosen.

Heat the pad so it is warm but not too hot to handle.  Rest it on the shoulder for up to 20 minutes or until the pad cools.  May need a layer between the pad and the skin to diffuse heat if it’s too hot.

 

Pressure Point Release

When finding a knot in the tight muscle (i.e. the focal point of the tightness), it can help to forcefully apply pressure to it with just your hands.  Though this will be quite painful, by pressing on this knot, it will try to break down the blockage of metabolites and slowly allow blood into the deprived area to further flush them out. 

 

Trigger Point

Push onto the area where there is a palpable knot (usually the area of most pain) and hold for roughly 10-20 seconds or until you feel the knot start to dissipate.  Continue after brief rest if very painful.  It is not advised to push on knots directly on the neck.       

 

Lacrosse/Tennis Ball Massage

Through lying on your back and placing a ball under the tight muscles, one can effectively self-massage the tight area.  Moving the ball backwards and forwards over the muscle will have numerous different effects: it will put pressure on the focal point of the knot which will help to break it down; it will increase blood flow to the area to help flush out the metabolites and it will generally feel nice (afterwards!) which will help you to relax and not keep the shoulders contracted.

 

Massage

 

Place a lacrosse ball (tennis ball if you want a less painful massage) on the floor and position your upper shoulder over it.  Lower your weight on the ball and slowly move around, pushing the ball into your tight muscles.

 

Lower Trap Activation

This self-help tip is to be used in conjunction with one or all of the above tips.  By learning how to activate the lower component of the trapezius (big muscle at the top of your shoulders running down the middle of your upper back), one can get better at keeping the shoulders depressed and having a less likely chance of the upper trapezius getting short and tight.  The lower trapezius will help keep the upper trapezius in a lengthened state.  This can be done by performing the 'Prone Cobra'.

 

Cobra

Lying on your front with your arms by your side, lift your chest away from the ground until you feel the muscles in your back engage. Pause at the top and lower to the start position. Repeat 15 to 20 times. 

Hopefully these tips will help to alleviate any pain you have in your neck/shoulder. From there it is important that the causal mechanisms mentioned above are investigated to ascertain how they can be modified to prevent any further instances.