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A Pain In The Neck Is A Burden To Shoulder

Necks and shoulders are stiff and painful places for many people. Perhaps that is why so many expressions concerning these areas have found there way into our language. “A pain in the neck!” and “shouldering the burden” are two examples.

Reasons for these difficulties are many and varied: the issue may have its origins in an injury, accident or medical condition.  These include but are not limited to rotator cuff injury, whiplash and arthritis.  Stress is another major culprit and is probably a more common cause than we usually think.

Whatever the original cause of the pain, the consequences are similar.  In other words, if you experience chronic pain because you have not fully recovered from a torn rotator cuff, you are very likely suffering from similar issues to a person who experiences a lot of stress.

Although it is often considered a “mental” or “emotional” experience, stress has definite physical manifestations.  Think about times when you have been frightened or angry or have experienced other stressful situations.  Does just thinking about something like that cause you to start drawing up your shoulders?

When we experience stress or even just anticipate a difficult situation we often react by holding our breath and hunching our shoulders.  Less obvious, but still common reactions, include tightening the fingers and toes, and contracting the muscles of the face and neck.

Stress is a normal part of life - it is to be expected and so is our reaction to it.  Since our reactions tend to be more or less automatic it would probably not be very useful to try and avoid pulling up your shoulders or tightening your chest.  Indeed, the reaction is not harmful in itself because it is okay to contract our muscles.  The real problem arises when the situation has passed and we continue to contract them.

Lets say that someone pulls out in front of you when you’re driving and you react by drawing up your shoulders and tensing your chest.  (Your reaction is likely to be the same whether you are angry or just shocked.)  Once the situation has passed you may well continue to hold some of those contracted muscles.  Later, you are on the receiving end of a difficult phone call and you have a similar physical reaction.  As these stressors are layered upon one another it is likely that you begin to keep muscles contracted for so long that you don’t even know that you are contracting them.

Those contracted muscles then act like a splint and prevent you from moving fully.  As a result the parts that do move have to do more work than they should and they get sore.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, we start to hold more muscles to avoid hurting the painful place.  That means there is less of the body available to move and the problem gets worse.

Although stress is a common cause of these kinds of issues, similar things happen as a result of continuing to protect an injury that has healed or by habits developed through misguided beliefs such as holding ourselves rigidly erect in order to have “good” posture.

Many people have stubborn pain in their necks or shoulders because of poor movement patterns.  Recovery from injury is often impeded by these patterns as well.  For example, people who have limitations following rotator cuff surgery can find much greater comfort and range of motion when they learn to allow their chest and ribs to be flexible and a part of the movement of the arm.  Their shoulder hurt because their chest was stiff and their chest was stiff because their shoulder hurt.  It is a vicious cycle but the good news is that it can be broken.

It is possible to learn new ways of moving and to develop healthier movement patterns at any age.  The brain controls the movement of the body and it can form new neural pathways and patterns throughout life.  When these new patterns are formed, the body is able to move in a more optimized way, and pain is hugely reduced or goes away altogether.

More good news is that these new ways of moving are easy and comfortable to learn.  If movement is done with attention and with the minimal amount of effort possible, it will be easy and the patterns will be adopted.  If something hurts, such as when we stretch or force, we are effectively telling the brain that the movement is harmful and then, in future, that movement will be avoided.

Look to make your movements comfortable.  You can experiment, and find your comfortable range by moving slowly enough to notice what is moving, and what you are holding.  Movement with attention will also allow you to discover your comfortable limits because you will feel that something is not right before you go too far.  As you move easily within these limits you will find that the limits expand and you will have larger, easier and more comfortable movement.

As your awareness of how you move increases, you will quickly notice when you are holding somewhere and be more easily able to release the contraction.  Someone might pull out in front of you when you are driving again, and you might still get difficult phone calls, but you will know how you have reacted and you will know how to prevent your reaction from becoming a long term problem.

It is possible to make these discoveries on your own but the process can be accelerated though the use of the Feldenkrais Method.  Dr. Feldenkrais developed a system where very precise and controlled movements lead to greatly improved functioning.  The method can be taught to groups where participants are led through movement sequences following verbal instruction, and it can be taught one on one where the practitioner moves the student’s body in ways that promote easier and more comfortable motion.

Learn to move more easily and you will find that your shoulders will not feel burdened and you will no longer have a pain in the neck!