Why Your Shoulders are Always Tight
“I carry my stress in my neck and shoulders.”
Have you said that before? In our super busy society, we are stressed on a daily basis. Our nervous system, fascia, and muscles all hold the tension until we release it. You might think that getting a massage is the only way to relieve the chronic tension. Yet there are numerous ways you can alleviate the tight muscles. To select the appropriate method of treating your tight shoulders and neck, you must determine why your shoulders are always tight.
Scenario #1- Text Neck
Our posture and activities of daily living have a lot do with the tension we feel. Looking down at a small phone screen puts stress on your neck and shoulder muscles and they start to adapt to that stress….not in a good way. The muscles on the back of your neck get overstretched and the deep neck flexors on the front of your neck lose their ability to contract.
You will feel “tightness” on the top of your shoulders because those muscles are resting in a lengthened position. They are stressed, out of alignment, and are trying to tell you they want to stop being stretched. Stretching them to relieve the tension will only make them more unhappy.
Reversing “text neck” means strengthening those deep neck flexors by making a double chin. Watch the video for further explanation and demonstration of the exercise.
I heard another great way to practice this double chin exercise from a physical therapist. Use the headrest in your car as a guide. Try to keep your chin level, make a double chin, and release slowly keeping your head against the headrest. Do 5-8 reps. Why not work on your posture while you’re sitting in traffic?!
Also, start holding your phone at face level. It is important to get out of poor alignment and retrain proper posture. Doing the strengthening double chin exercise won’t help if you continue to place the muscular imbalance stress on your body.
Scenario #2 – Christmas Tree Shoulders
Take a good look at the level of your shoulders in the mirror. Are they sloping down like a Christmas tree? If they are, you once again have weak, overstretched muscles. But what you feel is tension, not tightness.
A good approach to retraining these muscles is to start with releasing the trigger points by rolling a tennis ball around your shoulder blade. Spend 1-2 minutes on each side taking care not to roll over your spine. Then, strengthen the muscles with the Forearm Wall Slide. Do 6-8 reps.
Avoid exercises that pull your shoulders down even more such as Pull-Ups, Farmer Carries, and any exercise where you’re holding DBs to your side. Omit any overhead pressing exercises, like shoulder press, because those exercises aren’t healthy for your compromised shoulder joint. Additionally, definitely don’t do the ear to shoulder stretch! Stretching an overstretched muscle will exacerbate the problem.
Scenario #3 – Lop-Sided Shoulders
While you’re looking in the mirror to evaluate the position of your shoulders, notice if one shoulder is resting higher than the other.
This scenario is getting more complicated and you may need professional help to treat this. But, it is good to know this about your posture and be aware that it can possibly be the cause of your chronically tight shoulders.
If your right shoulder is lower than your left, it can mean that your neck muscles are overworking to help you breathe. Your diaphragm is compressed and struggling to do its job. Retraining your breathing patterns will improve this lop-sided posture.
If your left shoulder is lower than your right, you mostly likely have permanent negative changes in your muscular system. Again, improving your breathing patterns will help, but a visit to a physical therapist will be necessary.
In either case, I encourage you to visit a therapist trained by the Postural Restoration Institute. They have amazing techniques to address breathing including breathing into a balloon. It’s all about teaching the diaphragm to function properly.
In many cases, stretching is not the solution. To relieve chronic tightness, you need to activate the right muscles and teach them how to function. While stress can be a cause of tight muscles, if you have chronic tension, it’s often more involved than simply having a tough day at work. Look to your posture and alignment for answers. Get out of the postures that are causing you pain!