One of the most common, if not the most common problem in the clinic with patients is stiffness in the neck and shoulders. There is no pattern to age or gender and often is a chronic pain stemming from months or possibly years ago. The first issue with that situation is that people generally ignore the problem until it’s insufferable. Just like any problem, get it addressed ASAP and it’ll shorten the amount of sessions you need with a therapist and of course resolve the problem a lot sooner.
What is stiffness?
So in my clinic I use the word “tightness” and “stiffness” for two separate issues. They generally both mean the same for patients, but as a clinician it’s important to know the difference. Tightness in a muscle will limit your range of movement, sometimes due to an injury in the surrounding tissues leading to muscles seizing up as a protective mechanism. Have you ever moved awkwardly and felt your back twinge? Did you notice the next few days were a lot more limiting in tying your shoe laces for example? That’s because the muscles became tighter to prevent any further damage from that awkward twist. This applies all over the body.
Stiffness is more due to an overuse of a muscle, but not exclusively. When a muscle is stiff, it becomes harder for the blood vessels to expand and allow a smooth blood flow. This means when undergoing physical activity you will feel your body become heavier quicker, and begin to ache. The fibres in the muscles become so enclosed that they don’t get enough oxygen to replenish them. In the instance where individuals may have stiffness in their neck or lower back, it can be due to holding their head up throughout the day in a static position (office workers or drivers).
Why do I have it?
So as mentioned, working in an office or driving for a profession can be the reason you get that stiffness in your neck and shoulders. Being in a static position for so long brings an element of muscle memory to the body. If you don’t move your neck on a regular day-to-day lifestyle and fix on a screen, the muscles decide they aren’t needed for any further range of movement. The same applies to those fixed on their mobiles more than life itself! Looking down so often can begin to either apply stress on the neck beginning that stiffness, or it becomes too flexible and therefore weakens the muscles.
Another big factor causing shoulder stiffness is stress. If you’re a single mother of two children with a full time job for example, that’s a very stressful lifestyle and the body will physically respond to that as well as psychologically. Some carry stress in their lower back, others in their shoulders and neck. To my knowledge there’s no pattern on who gets the tension where, it’s subjective to the individual.
How to address this discomfort
When it comes to neck and shoulder stiffness they’re very simple and easy to attack on a rehabilitative scale, the problem is a lot of people don’t maintain the daily routine.
No matter why you suffer, the same rehab can apply to everybody:
Shoulder rolls x15 – simple and easy, slow and controlled. 15 clockwise then 15 back the other way. You may feel the shoulders ache relatively quickly, but that just shows the stiffness that needs to be worked on.
Neck side flexions x10 – Ear to shoulder directions again slow and controlled, 10 in each direction.
Neck rotations x10 – Looking as far as you can to the left, then to the right. Sensing a pattern by now to keep them slow and controlled, 10 in each direction!
One of the best things for shoulder and neck stiffness however is seeing a therapist. It doesn’t have to be a long session, just enough to make a difference to the stiffness. Initially if you’ve suffered for a long time, I’d advise a few massage sessions in the space of a month sticking to the above directions daily, then bringing it down as you feel you need them.