Shouldering the Weight of the World
Whether you’re playing catch, lifting boxes onto a shelf, or reaching for your favourite book – you rely on your shoulders to give you a wide and versatile range of motion. Unfortunately, this means that when something goes wrong with your shoulder, your ability to move freely is hampered – causing a lot of discomfort and pain.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with what’s going on in your skeleton – the shoulder is a ball-and-socket type of joint that’s made up of three main bones: the clavicle (your collarbone), the humerus (the long bone in your arm), and the scapula (the shoulder blade). All of these bones are covered by a soft, spongey layer of cartilage.
The ball and socket nature of the shoulder means that it’s the most mobile joint in your body, capable of moving your arm forwards and backwards, and ensuring that you can perform fun windmill motions if the occasion calls for it. All of that motion comes from the shoulder’s rotator cuff – which is made up of four different tendons.
Unfortunately, as versatile as your shoulder might be – it’s also incredibly prone to injury. Pulling just one of the tendons in your rotator cuff could make it extremely difficult or painful to lift your arm – particularly if the muscles around the shoulder joint are swollen.
On top of that, your shoulder can be injured in a wide range of different ways too. For instance, you can injure your shoulder by playing sports, performing manual labour, or even engaging in repetitive movements. Certain diseases can bring about pain that travels through the shoulder, and this includes diseases that impact the spine, the neck, and the liver.
Following, we’re going to take a look at some of the main causes of shoulder pain – and what you can do to shift the weight off, and enjoy a freer range of motion.
Bad Posture Harms your Neck and Shoulders!
Wondering if your slouching habit can cause the pains that you almost always feel throughout your neck, shoulders, and back? The answer is absolutely. What’s more, today, bad posture is affecting greater numbers of people throughout all stages of life.
Posture is the way that you align your skeleton and muscles to provide a strong and reliable frame. If you’re standing, or sitting at an awkward angle, then your centre of gravity changes, and you place additional strain on certain parts of your body. For instance, when you’re leading forward, you’re forcing your neck to cope with the additional weight of your head, while your shoulders hold the top half of your body straight.
Perhaps the most common reason for neck and shoulder pain is forward head posture. Forward head posture is when you’re leaning forward – maybe to write an email or read an article on your computer. The posture causes you to curve your neck more, and hunch the shoulders inwards.
Hunching or slouching forwards places more strain on the top of your body, as it pulls your head down towards the floor, and forces your shoulders to exhibit greater strength in keeping you properly situated. In other words, if you want to enjoy stronger, less painful shoulders, then you should aim to walk, sit, and stand with your shoulders back, and your spine straight.
Shoulder Pain Stress
Excessive, or chronic stress isn’t just a pain in the neck – it’s dangerous for your shoulders too. Today, around one in ten people suffer from shoulder and neck pain – and part of that might be caused by the constant state of panic and anxiety that most people feel today.
Over the years, it seems that we’ve lost the skill for relaxation – meaning that we spend more time stressing out over the past and future, and less time focusing on keeping ourselves happy and healthy in the moment. All of this excess stress not only leads to mental problems like fatigue and depression, but it can also cause chronic pain by increasing the amount of strain you expose your muscles to on a regular basis.
While stress isn’t always the cause of neck and shoulder pain – it can make small existing pains a great deal worse. Let’s take a look at how the stress of your average day affects your neck and shoulders:
- Stress enlarges blood vessels in your muscles to allow for faster oxygen delivery
- Stress causes you to tighten and clench the muscles across your shoulders, jaw, and neck
- Stress increases the levels of tension in the muscles that run across the top of your back
- The more stressed you are, the more your shoulder and neck movements are restricted
- Stress heightens your perception of pain and can make existing feelings of discomfort worse
Basically, when we feel stressed, our body enters a state that makes us ready for battle. When that battle never comes, it means that we’re left holding onto a whole lot of tension that simply has nowhere to go. Eventually this strain irritates your nerves and muscles – causing pain that is difficult to manage without overcoming the initial cause of the stress.
Strong Shoulders Combat Pain
The joints of the shoulders are probably the most complex joints in the human body – but just like any other joint, they’re surrounded by muscles that help them to stay strong and supported. If you allow those muscles to waste away without providing them with regular exercise and nutrition – then your shoulders lose the support they need to thrive.
When people hit the gym, they generally forget about just how important it is to work on their shoulder muscles at the same time as their biceps. However, if you’re the kind of person who uses your shoulders a lot, or you have a particularly demanding job, then you might need to think more carefully about how you can work on your shoulder strength.
Here are a few exercises that might help:
- The Arm-Across-the-Chest
Hold your right hand in front of you, keeping it close to your waist. With this accomplished, pull your left hand back behind your elbow, moving your arm across your chest. If you feel a little pain around the tendons in your shoulder, that’s fine – but any serious discomfort means that you should stop pulling immediately. The goal should be to pull your entire right arm across your chest without any discomfort at all – but that might take some practice!
- The Seated Twist
Sit straight in your chair with your knees pressed together, then carefully twist your body to the right, putting your left palm gently against the outside of your right palm. Let your shoulders relax, and push gently against your thigh, breathing deeply as you hold your position for about fifteen seconds. Gradually relax, then repeat towards the opposite side.
- The Neck Release
Sit up as straight as you can, then slowly lower your chin towards your chest until you feel the muscles in the back of your neck stretching. Try to lean your head to the left slightly, so that the tug on your right shoulder is a little stronger if you have more pain problems in that side. The same applies vice versa.
- The 90-90 Stretch
This particular exercise will be easier if you stand in a doorway – holding your arms upwards towards the frame. Your elbows should be at a 90-degree angle, so you can place each hand on either side of the door frame, and step forward with one foot, aligning your spine and your neck. Lean forward and rely on your arms against the door frame to stop you from face-planting the ground. Hold the stretch for as long as you can without losing your grip.
- Chest Expansion
Wrap some kind of rope, strap, or exercise band around your back, and grab it with both hands. Whole you’re holding each edge of the strap, pull your shoulder blades forwards as though you’re trying to get them to touch each other. While you’re doing this, raise your chin up towards the ceiling, and breath as deeply as you can, letting your lungs expand fully.
Lots of Manual Labour? Focus on Form
If you’re the kind of person who spends all day lifting heavy boxes, then you need to make sure that you’re doing it right if you want to avoid injury. After all, raising things above your head puts additional stress on your arms and shoulders – which could lead to serious injury – particularly if the joints are weak.
Some of the best ways that you can fix nagging shoulder pain that’s caused by repetitive work-based motions or specific sports include:
- Making sure that you stretch before exercise to provide your shoulders with a full range of motion.
- Carefully situating your body so that your shoulders sit in the correct position.
- Avoiding specific exercises that you know hurt your shoulders
No matter how much you work on strengthening your arms, back, and even the shoulders themselves – it’s important to remember that these joints are fragile, and they need to be handled with care. Within the shoulder joint – there’s only a very small gap for your arms to move around in – known as the subacromial space. Unfortunately, a lot of people ignore that space when they’re lifting things and engaging in regular exercises – leading to inflammation in nearby muscles and ligaments.
If you want to alleviate the pain in your cranky shoulders and avoid agony in your future workouts, then you need to focus on improving your form and balance. This means adjusting your posture, as we mentioned above, and being careful to use proper lifting techniques. Keep your body straight, bend at the knees, and don’t try to lift anything that weighs more than 20% of your total weight.
Regular Massage to the rescue…..
The problem with shoulder pain today, is that it’s become such a common occurrence – we’ve convinced ourselves that there’s nothing to do but put up with the discomfort. In an attempt to maintain busy schedules, we tell ourselves that we don’t need to worry about regular treatments to free up the tight muscles, or stretch out the achy ligaments. However, when we ignore self-massage, relaxation, and other treatments, we still expect our massage therapists to be able to fix a year’s worth of shoulder problems in a single session.
Don’t expect your massage therapist to be a miracle worker – remember that you need regular sessions to get great results. At the same time, you can always use at-home relaxation techniques to help alleviate discomfort in between professional appointments. For instance:
- Neck stretching: Simply lower your chin towards your chest for a few seconds, then let the weight of your head stretch your upper back. Once you’re finished, drop your head to the left for fifteen seconds, then to the right for fifteen seconds, fully stretching the muscles surrounding your neck and shoulders.
- Meditation: Taking steps to actively calm the mind can help to reduce shoulder and neck pain, and relieve exhausted or strained muscles. Meditation can also be simpler than you think. Just sit quietly with your eyes closed for about five to ten minutes, and allow yourself to focus on the moment with some mindful breathing.
- Try progressive relaxation: With progressive relaxation, the aim is to mentally focus on individual muscles throughout the body as you tighten and relax them. For instance, you could rest your elbows on your neck and press your face against your hands, which makes your neck tense. Once you’ve done that, you can release the tension and concentrate on the feeling of each muscle in your neck slowly relaxing.
- Self-massage: Find the point of discomfort in one of your shoulders with the tips of your fingers, and apply a gentle amount of pressure to the spot, moving your hand in slow, careful circles. This might help to reduce your discomfort, while giving the alternate shoulder some extra exercise that helps to increase mobility.
Regular massage can do wonders for shoulder and neck pain if you commit yourself to regular sessions – but it’s an issue that needs to be addressed constantly. After all, you don’t just use your shoulder’s once a year – so why would you only need one massage session?