Sunday, March 1, 2015

"My Upper Back and Shoulders Hurt..."

by Kate Lancour

So many of our daily activities engage us in a forward focused posture - working at the computer, driving, using our smart phones, preparing meals - our arms extended, shoulders rounded in, neck and head craning forward, locking us into a slouched postural position for multiple hours of the day. It's no wonder we feel that familiar ache in the upper back, between the shoulder blades, at the top of the shoulders, a little bit up the neck; our bodies are trying to bring us back into balance and straining those muscles in the process.

 It is important to work on these areas of discomfort during a massage, to break up knots and adhesions, improve circulation of blood and fluids to dehydrated and ischemic tissues, return mobility to hardened connective tissue, and release painful trigger and tender points. But it is also important to work on the muscles opposite to the symptomatic areas, the ones in front that have tightened and locked into a shortened position, in effect keeping the painful back muscles in a prolonged contraction while they are stretched out too long, like a rubber band pulled to its maximum length and held there. Most of the time these short muscles do not register as painful, although they can be tender to the touch once they start to receive massage.

In lengthening these shortened muscles through the upper chest, front of the shoulders, and front and sides of the neck, the ones in the back that hurt are able to get some slack and return to a more comfortable and functional length, easing pain and tension. It may take more than one massage within a short period of time to break through all of the knots, stuck tissue, and layers of tension that have built up over time, and to help stretch out chronically short muscles to more functional resting lengths. Once the muscles and connective tissues are sufficiently normalized, massages can be spaced further apart as a component of a regular maintenance routine.

In order to keep the same scenario from playing out once we return to our daily activities, it is important to keep the muscles in the front from tightening back up and pulling the back muscles into overstretched and painful positions. One of the ways this can be done is through periodic stretch breaks. When engaging in those behaviors that put us into a forward focused position, set a reminder alarm to ring every 2 or 3 hours. When it does, take a pause to stretch and open up the chest, shoulders, and neck, and then drink a glass of water to help keep the tissues hydrated and mobile. Also, be mindful of posture and ergonomics when working at a desk or on a laptop computer. Adjust chair and monitor heights so that wherever the body bends, right angles are formed - at the knees, waist and elbows - and make sure the screen is at eye level.

 Keeping the body balanced and stretched, in addition to regular massage, helps prevent the dysfunctional postures that can lead to chronic pain in the upper back, shoulders, and neck.