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How to treat chronic neck and shoulder tension

One of the most common complaints that brings people in to our clinic for treatment is chronic muscle tension in the neck and shoulders. This chronic tension can be caused by many things, but the most common causes are poor posture and stress. Let’s look at each of these in a little more depth.  

Poor posture: Many people in modern society find themselves sitting at a computer for a large part of the day. If your computer keyboard and monitor are not placed at precisely the right height for your body, you may find yourself straining your neck forward, curving your upper back, shrugging your shoulders, or rolling your shoulders forward as you type. All of these motions put strain on certain muscles, causing chronic tension and pain.

From an acupuncture perspective, pain and tension is caused from a blockage of the flow of Qi, or energy, in the meridians that traverse the body. When our shoulders are crunched up towards our neck, or we roll our shoulders forward, certain meridians are compressed and Qi is not able to flow the way it should. Therefore, pain and tension occur.

Many of us have very poor posture when standing, as well. Go ahead, just stand up for a minute. Are your shoulders rolling forward? This is a very common posture, and one that puts additional strain on the muscles of the upper back, tops of the shoulders, and neck. Sometimes this is caused from a weakness in the Rhomboid muscles, that attach the shoulder blades to the spine. Sometimes it is caused from emotional distress or stress – a natural reaction of the body is to curve inward, to protect the heart and the emotions. Sometimes it is a result of sitting too much, not exercising enough, or exercising only certain muscle groups. Practice rolling your shoulders back, creating space between your ears and your shoulders. Imagine you are pushing the bottom tips of your shoulder blades down towards the back pockets of your pants. At first, this may actually be more painful, because you are forcing muscles to work that have become lazy! But in the long run, this will immensely help with shoulder pain and tension.

Stress: In Traditional Chinese Medicine, stress knots the Qi and causes it to stagnate. One of the energy systems that is most easily susceptible to stress is the Wood system, which includes the meridians of the Liver and the Gall Bladder. The Wood energy, more than any other, wants to flow and move and expand. When we get stressed, and our energy knots, that affects the Wood energy first and foremost. And guess where the Gall Bladder meridian lies? You got it. Right on the top of the shoulders – it flows from the corners of the eye, through the temples, around the ear, up and over the head, right to the base of the skull, down the side of the neck and across the tops of the shoulders, before descending down the body. Many time, patients’ neck and shoulder tension follows the exact pathway of the Gall Bladder meridian.  

So how to treat it? As we mentioned, correcting posture is first and foremost. Then, therapeutic techniques that focus on relieving muscle tension, breaking up muscle knots and adhesions, and opening up energy flow through the area will be more effective. Such techniques include deep tissue massage, acupuncture, cupping, craniosacral therapy, and gua sha therapy. Topical herbal applications can also be used to increase circulation through the area and prevent further tension.

There are not too many research studies of acupuncture for neck and shoulder tension, but there are studies that show acupuncture can be an effective therapy for some of the health issues that arise from such tension: such as chronic neck pain, chronic shoulder pain, and tension headaches.

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