Causes of Stiff Neck and Tight Shoulders

Before we jump to a remedy we need to have an understanding of the cause of the problem. It is not possible to eliminate pain over the long term without understanding the cause. Some times it can be eliminated for a short period, but until the cause is understood, it will return.

So, what causes the problem? Working at a computer station will cause you to lean forward into the screen and tilt your head down. Additionally, you will have to use the mouse which will cause you to reach forward with the hand. At this point you will be pulling your head down and twisting your shoulder forward and toward the center of the body. The pain or soreness that you will get will be at the back of the neck and the top of the shoulders. The muscles involved are those which are pulling your head and shoulders back. Here is where you will feel the pain, but they are not the cause of the problem! The muscles in the back of the neck and the top of the shoulder are stretched forward as you are reaching with your arm or bringing your head down. As a consequence they are over-stretched. Yes, they are tight, but they are tight long. You will always feel the pain in the over-stretched muscles and they are the cause of the pain, but not the cause of the problem. The muscles that cause the problem are those which force them to stretch and remain stretched and those muscles will be tight short. You will not feel any pain there until you touch them. The over-stretched muscles will feel like “knots” and you or someone else will try to work them out, but they will come back because the cause has not been eliminated. Eliminate the cause and the problem goes away.

Simple Remedy

The simple solution is to do the opposite of what caused the problem in the first place: A pulling forward. The opposite: Pulling backward. No! It can’t be that easy!? Yes and no. If the problem is one that has persisted for a time and has become chronic, it will take time to eliminate. In the case of back of the neck pain which is usually tied with shoulder pain (the upper trapezius), these actions will go along way to resolving the issue.

1st: In either a sitting or standing position drop your hands to your sides so that the thumbs point forward;

2nd: Pull your shoulder blades (scapulae) together firmly;

3rd: Rotate your head back so that you try to point your chin toward the ceiling;

4th: Rotate your thumbs out and back. Do everything at once and hold for about two seconds and repeat three or four times. The action should “feel good”, if it doesn’t, don’t do it as something else is going on. Generally speaking, an action that “feels good” when you do it is your body’s way of saying that you need to do it to help yourself. So, do it.

For a recurring complaint as described above, perform this action several times during the day as often as you feel the need. It would be good to do it every hour for the first day and then as needed.

Further Support

Sometimes it takes a bit more to remedy the situation as some muscles may be too tight and special attention may be required. The most likely culprit is the pectoralis minor muscle which will pull the scapula (shoulder blade) forward thus stretching the trapezius muscle. If that is the case, place your hand behind your head and raise your elbow so that it is half way between your head and your arm pit. Place the tip of the elbow against a wall and gently lean your body forward so that the elbow pulls back and stretches the offending muscle. Hold it for about two seconds and repeat two or three times, then perform the same action on the opposite side. This should also “feel good”. Avoid trying to do both arms at once by standing in a doorway. You want to be able to feel the muscles and thereby understand how your body works. If you do both at the same time you will not gain that knowledge as it is impossible for the mind to feel both sides equally at the same time and you could possibly hurt yourself.

If the problem is more on the neck, then interlace your fingers and place your hands behind your head. Firmly rotate your head into the resistance of your hands and hold for about two seconds. Repeat. At home you may want to apply a warm washcloth to the back of your neck for about three minutes to loosen the tension in the neck muscles before doing the exercise. Try to do it shortly before bedtime so that you do not go back to reading or working or anything that will put your head in a compromised position. Doing it at bedtime has the added advantage of allowing your body to heal overnight.

Long Term Remedies

Get to know your body. Once you understand how your body works you will be able to adjust for greater balance. Muscular pain is generally an imbalance among different muscles. Once balance is achieved there will be no pain. The first step is to look at your environment and adjust it to suit your body, not the other way around. Your body was made to run and jump and move not to simply sit and stare. Periodically, then you must make an effort to move, to use your muscles differently, to break the pattern of inertia. In doing so you will also realize that you need to adjust your work space to accommodate your body and its needs. Simple changes will bring dramatic results.

Firstly, if you work at a computer, adjust the height of the monitor such that you are easily able to look directly at it without having to pull your head down to see.

Secondly, if you are reaching up to access the keyboard or mouse, move the keyboard to your lap so that you only need to support your hands for the work. This is economy of motion, i.e., using the least to get the most, while keeping your body balanced.

Thirdly, pull your shoulder blades together gently and then extend your arm to manipulate the mouse. Find the maximum distance you can extend your arm in this position and mark it on the desk with a piece of tape. When you relax your shoulder blades, that mark will be the furthest forward that you will move your arm. Finally, find a good seat and adjust the height so that the thighs and torso form a greater than ninety degree angle when your feet are flat on the floor. Next, move your torso forward and back slowly until you find that position which is perfectly balanced and effortless, then do the same sideways. Whatever you do, do not let your torso recline into the back support as this will have deleterious effects on your back. Having done these things you will now be able to work more comfortably and effortlessly for at least half an hour, perhaps less. Do not kid yourself; you will not be able to hold this position for a prolonged period of time initially. It will take effort and practice. Work at it at least fifteen minutes every day and slowly you will be able to last longer and without pain.

To get your body in balance will also require strengthening those back muscles to the same degree as the front ones. So there are some gentle exercise you can do to achieve that balance. To strengthen the muscles that pull the scapulae together find a bare wall, stand a half step away from it with your back toward it and lean against it with your body straight. Raise your arms to the side and put your elbows against the wall. Now pull your scapulae together and pull your chest forward. Do this at least ten times slowly, rest for ten seconds and repeat. As it becomes easier to do increase the distance your feet are from the wall, so instead of a half step make it a full step. After about a week of doing this you will begin to notice a positive difference.

You can apply these ideas to any part of your body where there is dysfunction. Your body can move forward, backward, side to side, and twist. Doing too much of the same thing will cause a chronic holding pattern to establish itself which will cause a nagging pain. In extreme situations the pain will become very sharp and immobilizing. Pay attention to your body and learn from it as you are partners for the duration. Perform all of the exercises slowly. Pay attention to your body and how it feels as you do the exercises. You developed a pattern of behavior slowly over time and you will eliminate it the same way.

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Last updated on October 30, 2013