Help Me Fix My Neck and Shoulders

Most of the health posts on this site are me sharing what I’ve learned. For this post, I am openly asking for your help. For several years, I have had tight neck and shoulder muscles. Although I rarely would say that I am in pain, it has been an annoyance. All my other health markers have improved, including headaches, except this. I have done the conventional advice and it has not helped.

Photo by Roland

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The back of my neck and shoulders are often very tight. I have done all the more popular neck exercises. See the chart on this page. When I do these exercises on a consistent basis, my range of motion increases, however they have done nothing to reduce the tightness. When doing the Trapezius Stretch (exercise #1) on the chart, I can lower my ear all the way to my shoulder on both sides. I have excellent mobility, but it is still tight.

When I move my neck quickly, I get a minor jolt of pain. As a result, I tend to turn to look more with my upper torso than my neck. Even though I am a champ when it comes to parallel parking, I can really feel the restricted movement in my neck when I park. I also get a minor jolt of pain if I jump down. On the rare times I do sprint, I have to keep my form perfect and my neck fixed.

The tightness used to be more pronounced on my right side, which is my dominant hand. Since switching to a vertical mouse, the tightness is more centrally located with only a slight bias toward the right.

Deep tissue massage feels wonderful and helps a lot, but it is costly, so I rarely get a massage. A few months ago my neck was in such awful shape that I had an hour massage where the massage giver was only able to work out about half the tension. Normally I would suspect they were trying to up sell more sessions, but I knew they were right. Ideally, I’d like to have a neck and shoulders that didn’t require regular professional maintenence.

As much as I love and have benefited the exercises in 3 Minutes to a Pain-Free Life, I have gotten no relief from their neck exercises. I also have stopped doing shoulder lifts in the gym, as I have found they make me even tighter.

I do the Sky Reach stretch from 3 Minutes to a Pain-Free Life daily. I feels good and I do now have full range motion, but my shoulders still feel tight. 

When I chased down the root cause of my back pain, I discovered it was psychological. Although there could be a stress root, this seems totally different. The back pain was not subtle. It was intense and quite distracting. It spiked during periods of stress and disappeared during periods of low stress. The neck and shoulder tightness almost never surfaces as pain and those times when has been painful, the pain level was very low compared to prior back pain. The neck and shoulder tightness rarely demands my attention, which makes me skeptical it has stress roots. That analysis is based off what I’ve read by Dr. Sarno and others that are experts in the field. Also the neck and shoulder tightness pre-dates my back pain and exists today post back pain.

Other tidbits:

  • My posture is much better than it used to be, which has helped a little.
  • I drive a lot less than I used to, which helped my back, but not my neck and shoulders.
  • Although I am at a desk a lot, the time I spend sitting varies.
  • I have been supplementing with various forms of Magnesium daily for years. No help.
  • Both heat and ice feel good, but I haven’t detected a pattern where they actually fix the problem.
  • I have changed pillows numerous times. From normal to thin to a rolled-up towel. No one pillow is the cause or cure.
  • Years ago I tried chiropractic sessions. I believe that charlatan made my neck worse.

Any ideas? If you’ve read this far and think you have an idea on how I can reduce my neck and shoulder tightness, please leave me a comment. Thank you.

Comments

  1. William says

    Hi MAS,

    Longtime follower, first time poster.

    I’m an avid barbell weightlifter and I too have had my share of neck tightness and pain.

    This is a blog run by a crossfit coach (but trust me, he is not your average crossfitter, ie, he knows what he’s talking about) who specializes in mobility through a series of simple videos.
    He’s been mentioned on Bulletproof Executive, so you might’ve heard of him. I suggest searching for videos on neck and shoulder pain and following the exercises. If the amount of content seems overwhelming, go to the start of the blog where he explains most of the key concepts and work your way from there.

    Here’s a sample video on neck tightness which has helped me tremendously.

    If nothing else, you WILL learn a lot about muscular anatomy. :)

  2. chuck says

    i had similar issues while playing football in college and for years after. i know all to well about the robot type movement needed with a tight neck. i also used to get exertion headaches while doing slow HIT training sessions which was the training scheme of choice at my school. those headaches always originating in my neck and radiated up to the back of my head. these could persist for days.

    also, i am a stomach sleeper. i am way more comfortable when my head is facing left. if i face right all night, i can wake up with a pretty tight neck.

  3. Sandy says

    Flow yoga like sun salutations. I too love the benefits of massage, but if I warm up my body with enough total body yoga I feel like I’ve accomplished two goals at once and saved a bundle of cash. Total body flow yoga. What all us ‘about to be old farts’ needs. I’ve got my own special battles of neck discomfort so I feel confident with my suggestion.

  4. says

    Dear Michael,

    As a massage and exercise therapist, I’m certain I can assist you and provide you with the information you need to resolve your shoulder and neck symptoms. I work out of two locations, one in Totem Lake and the other in downtown Bothell. I’d love to share my perspective on neck and shoulders,

    Dawn

  5. says

    I’ve had chronic low level tension that was psychosomatic. (I suspect I still have lots.) I can’t tell you how to know or how to clear it if it’s there – obviously it’s very personal. I do know that when I started going to a massage therapist a long time ago, her working on my shoulders brought a whole ton of long term emotional issues up that I’d been blocking. I’ve also seen a system that relates body tension to chakras to different sources of stress. I know, it sounds flaky, but I’m pretty sure it has something to do with the 4 or 5 hip replacements my mother has had. There’s also the Sedona Method, which can help clear long-term issues as well as current stuff. People have used it to clear physical problems. Recently I did this course: http://www.recreateyourlife.com/ and I think it cleared some chronic tension in my pelvis and it may have also improved my voice. It’s too soon to be sure, and that’s not why I did it, but I do think there’s been a shift in my body as well as my mind.

    I think there’s a big difference between stress we pick up when we’re kids (before we have any real perspective) and the stress we pick up in our teens and adulthoods (when we can analyze it as it comes at us). I think it’s harder to be aware of the stuff we pick up as kids, unless someone talks about it at the time, because we simply don’t have the mental power to analyze it yet. The Lefkoe system I linked to specifically goes after beliefs that we pick up in childhood (before we can analyze them) and clears them out.

    This may be completely useless. Obviously I have no idea what the source of tension is. Good luck figuring it out.

  6. says

    ** Thanks everyone for your comments! **

    @William – I just watched the 2 videos. I’m going to try the exercise in the 1st one. The second one gave me some ideas – although I don’t see the rounding problem. I believe the 3 Minutes program fixed that.

    @Chuck – I too get the occasional HIT headache. For me it is mostly a factor of the gym temperature. The warmer it is, the more likely it will happen. Lately, I have been standing outside in the 40-50 degree air for a few minutes between exercises. That helps.

    @Sandy – I found an 18 minute Flow Yoga video on YouTube, which I will try later today. http://youtu.be/b0Bc91_ws94 I can probably commit to doing this 2 times a week.

    @Dawn – I will reach out to you if I can’t make any progress in the next month with the other suggestions provided.

    @Anemone – Everything you said rings true. I have an upcoming post on the topic of stress and chronic illness. I’ll also look into the Sedona Method. I see some videos on YouTube.

  7. says

    Try using NO pillow at all.

    Sleep on the floor with no mattress. I did it for 1 year and found it gave me deeper sleep. But my girlfriend insisted I return to the comfiness of her mattress. :)

    Sure enough, your limbs and joints will be sore for the first few days but after a week or so your body will adapt to the new force distribution of your body weight.

    Maybe sleeping on the floor in (probably) the most natural position may remedy some of your neck tension.

    Most of Asia can’t be so wrong about sleeping on the bare floor. They have been doing it for centuries and are probably only now ditching that habit.

  8. chuck says

    @stephan

    i also use no pillow and slept on the floor for almost a year with MUCH success. i also got pressure from my wife. i cannot sleep with regularity on a mattress anymore. the hard surface of a carpeted floor almost feels like it aligns everything in my body when i wake up in the morning. i wake up feeling great. so i built a “floor” to put on our bed. i put 2 layers of carpet padding and 1 layer of carpet on top of a 30″ wide piece of plywood. it may seem nuts but works out great for me.

  9. says

    @Stephan, Chuck – that is seriously hard core. I’ve done without a pillow since last summer but haven’t had the nerve yet to try without a mattress. I keep thinking that if I could sleep on the floor, I wouldn’t have to bring my mattress with me next time I move, or get a new one. I like being able to carry everything I own easily. I guess I should have tried it while I still had a carpet. My floor is kind of hard.

  10. Pauline says

    Inflammation of soft tissues – fibromyalgia. Inflammation. I get this in my neck shoulders a lot but it can appear anywhere on my body if I have too much starch in my diet. Ice cream gives both my partner and I sore necks. Its a pain but there it is. And gluten. Go figure, I used to think it was the bed now I connect the dots and its usually related to diet. Diet and stress go hand in hand for me. In my 30s I had such a bad case of sore neck/ arm/ back I went to see a specialist, but that made it worse. It healed with time and reduction in stress but I was unaware then of nutrition and inflammation. Now there is a clear connection between foods in my diet and body pain.

  11. Roberta says

    The Mobility WOD is awesome. He’s coming out with a book next year too! I also highly recommend ART (active release therapy). ART specialists are usually (maybe always) licensed chiropractors, so it’s covered by most insurance. There are a couple good ones in Seattle if you want a recommendation….

  12. Jim says

    MAS,
    I would third the recommendations for Mobility WOD.
    In a few videos, Kelly Starrett mentions keeping a neutral head position. I was basically jutting my chin forward while doing computer work. Adjusting for neutral head position while at the computer has reduced my neck tightness about 80%.
    I’m curious to see what others suggest.

  13. says

    Hi Michael,
    No worries!
    Give me a call. Let’s talk a little and I’ll bet I can fix your neck pain. I do it for clients all the time, almost every time. I’d love to help.
    Ann-Marie Anderson
    Ideal Exercise
    206-364-9944

  14. Steve says

    Is the back of your computer chair pushing against your shoulder blades?

    I’d been using an expensive “ergonomic” chair at my computer, but no matter how I sat in it, my shoulders were always tight and sore, and the tightness would spread to my neck as well. What I finally realized was that the back of the chair was too high, and was pushing my scapulas forward. When I adjusted the chair so that the back support no longer pushed against my upper back and shoulders, the problem stopped.

    Now, if I could figure out how fix the stiff back I wake up with every morning!

  15. says

    I second (or third) the yoga recommendation… here we have several studios that offer what they call “happy hour yoga” an hour class for $6. the studio I like actually offers a special classes like back and neck care, so you may want to look for those kinds of options as well. good luck!

  16. says

    @Stephan – I can see sleeping on the floor might help with back pain, but I can’t see it helping with the shoulders or neck. I have experimenting with no pillow and found it worse than using a very thin one.

    @Pauline – ice cream causes neck pains? That seems bizarre, but would explain my increase in neck stiffness in the 2nd half of this year.

    @Roberta – Love the content of Mobility WOD, but his videos make me dizzy. Wish he would drop a few dollars for a tripod.

    @Jim – I do the same thing. When I’m at the desk I find I lean forward with my chin. I guess this will just take practice noticing and correcting for this.

    @Ann-Marie – Thank for for the offer. I’m going to try to fix this issue myself first, but if I fail I will reach out to a professional like yourself.

    @Steve – I don’t have that chair issue.

    ** All; I’m going to do a follow-up post with the all the ideas and plan I’ll test going forward. **

  17. says

    It’s your chemistry. Probably directly related to your headaches. Could be something you are eating, or taking. Or it could be a toxicity in your body. My husband is a master Kinesiologist (emphasis mine). If you could find your way to Kansas, he could give you some insight.

  18. Becky says

    I have had problems with my neck since I was a teenager. I was involved in 2 car accidents that resulted in neck injuries. It gets better, it gets worse, but it is always there, so you have my sympathy. I have learned some weird stretches that I cannot explain from a physical therapist that help. Wish I could describe them for you. I will think about it and see if I can think of a way. I sleep on a buckwheat pillow that does not resolve, but truly decreases the issues. It’s not the most comfortable pillow, but I find I relax my neck more with a very stable and conforming surface under my head. Going without a pillow is not an option for me. I am trying to preserve my natural neck curvature. I have what is known as a forward head. Most people who work on computers, lean over desks, look down all the time (like most modern humans) are prone to get this. Pay attention and see if you head is forward on your neck most of the time. You have to work to get it back, but it helps quite a bit if you do. Make sure that everything is arranged so that this forward motion is not required for you to do your work. I, too, really benefit from massages, but they are so expensive. I also cannot perform many exercises in the gym that require a lot of neck engagement. It makes it worse. I am looking forward to your post and hoping that you find things that work for you. I do believe that some people are just prone to carry tension in the neck area, and that it does contribute to headaches. GOOD LUCK, Michael.

  19. Pauline says

    Yes ice-cream always results in both of us having stiff necks the next day. Something in our body chemistry. I apply magnesium oil spray directly on neck/shoulders and it resolves it quickly but if I eat anything that has too much starch or ice-cream lactose? milk sugar, I have problem with neck as I do at the moment. Here is a link to magnesium oil spray I believe you can make it up yourself at home but I still have to research how to do it, magnesium oil is the way to go, quick and does the trick every time. Here’s a link to the stuff I use:
    http://www.amazon.com/BetterYou-Magnesium-Original-Spray-Bottle/dp/B002VPDX4W/ref=sr_1_22?s=hpc&ie=UTF8&qid=1354828312&sr=1-22&keywords=magnesium+oil+spray

  20. says

    See both The Feldenkrais Method and The Alexander Technique.

    Unless you address the root of the problem, which is your habitual use of your “self”, you will only be addressing symptoms.

    Good luck!

  21. says

    As Justin mentioned, discovering the root of the problem is key here. Usually, where you ‘feel it’ is not the problem – just the symptom. Addressing the symptom is typically the temporary resolution that provides a bit of relief for a while. It’s rather like noticing the leaning tower of Pisa isn’t straight and attempting to upright it without addressing the cause of the shift.

    Would love to hear what (if anything) works for you!

  22. says

    @Becky – Thanks.

    @Pauline – The more I think about it, the more I don’t think it is dietary.

    @Justin – I looked into both of those methods about 2 months. The books that were available in my library made each difficult to understand. I did find some relief from 2 of the exercises, but like other exercises, it didn’t relieve the tightness, it just felt good. Since I checked out both at the same time, I can’t recall which program made more sense.

    What they reminded me of was the Egoscue exercises, which I have had past benefit from, which I need to get back into doing.

    @Dawn – You are likely right. I’ve got lots of ideas to work with now. I’m going to pick the ones that make the most sense to me. I can always add adjust the program as I go.

  23. Stu says

    Michael,

    I agree with the ART recommendation, especially if there is scar tissue buildup. One thing that has helped the vast majority in our facility was quite simple. I have a Pendulum 4-way neck machine we use to train the musculature of the head and cervical spine through a full ROM. I have watched folks stretch and stretch to no avail and when i introduce them to the neck machine (proper seat height, rep speed, starting load, etc..) I see alot of pain “cured” in a short period of time. I started last month with a gal who had neck pain for 16 years due to a car accident. No chiro, PT, stretching gave her the relief that the neck work has accomplished. I admit I am a little leery to recommend you train on a neck machine. Be sure to find a good one with someone who knows how to set you up in one properly.

    Stu
    6166330167

  24. Txomin says

    The source of the pain is likely to be a combination of bad posture and tension. I have successfully (albeit very slowly) retrain my body in these areas in order to fix years of wrist pain. The only advice that I know works is to correct your posture and/or relax muscles whenever it comes to your attention. Gradually, things improve.

  25. says

    I recommend looking into trigger points. I don’t know if this is related to your issue, but being that a deep tissue massage helped give some temporary relief, you may want to look into it. I got to a point where I experienced almost migraine like headaches and became nauseated when resistance training, but found it was all related to trigger points. Trigger points can be resolved yourself (no chiros or massage therapists required). A general background is that trigger points are like a “small knot” in the muscle that is in a localized position and must be massaged correctly to eliminate it. Extremely “tight” trigger points can easily take a couple weeks or more to resolve, so you may not see immediate results. Trigger points can also cause referred pain being that the trigger point may not even be located in the immediate area of where you experience the pain. For example, headaches can actually be related to trigger points located in the neck, trapezius, mid back area, and even a combination of points in all three of these areas. I still continue to massage trigger point areas on days after I resistance train. This has prevented the referred pain and headaches from returning.

    Here is link for the book I purchased that was very informative on this subject.

    http://www.amazon.com/Trigger-Point-Therapy-Workbook-Self-Treatment/dp/1572243759

    For me, it was definitely a worthwhile investment with a large return.

  26. says

    @Txomin – I think you are probably correct.

    @Jeremy – I just put 3 Trigger point books on hold at the library. Thanks for the tip.

  27. Stu says

    the book which Jeremy mentions is well worth it. I’ve got a copy and the Theracane along with it.

  28. ad ligtvoet says

    Hi Michael,
    My advice would be the same as stu’s and I guess that Ann-Marie would go that direction too.I have worked with clients having all different causes but almost all got significant better with doing med-x neck strenghtening exercise and at my own location with a nautilus 2st machine.Symptoms can get worse at first and so it is adviceable to get some form of relaxation massage and/or take (short term) anti inflammation.This only if the reaction from the exercise triggers such a respond that the ideal frequency to exercise the neck area can’t be kept. I myself also do on this machine head extension and flexion besides neck extension/flexion and ofcourse a shrugg movement and a good control over scapula retraction during a row exercise.Then you have to control your posture.Posture is a habit so you have to control this till a better posture becomes the new habit,but you still need the stong muscles to allow for that.Stress leads also to thight neck muscles and needs to be controled or released ,the neck machine is also great for the release part .Having said this ,it always needs a proper anamnese before starting any protocol.
    Let me via this way sent condoleances to Ann-Marie.Reading your reaction here shows your strenght ,respect .You have to know that Greg’s influence also reached to the Netherlands and being the team you both have been that includes you too.
    ad

  29. says

    @Stu – I used the Theracane back in January. Amazing, but addicting. After one 60 minutes session, I wasn’t sure if it was helping or not. I could feel the knots melting, but they additional knots would immediately surface. Sort of like a “Whack a Mole” game. About an hour after I stopped using the Theracane, the knots that were present when I stopped faded. So the experience left me puzzled. I decided not to use it again and those knots never came back.

    @ad ligtvoet – I’ll be posting my routine soon. I’m going to start with the free options and then move to the more expensive should I need to.

    Interesting that you mentioned shrugging. I stopped doing those years ago, because I felt that movement made the problem worse.

  30. Iskander says

    Hi, MAS:

    1) Considering your headaches you have either protrusions or full-scale hernia in your neck area. Consider getting screened on a tomograph (Magnit-Resonance-Tomography, do not know exact equivalent in English).

    2) Try to minimize movements, try to stop bending neck, as protrusions could be damaged by the exercises. Instead, heat the area with your palms, one after another, 20 times each. Press real hard into acupuncture zones, the pain from pressing will trigger the response, but it should be a real pain.

    3) Buy yoga needles on a rubber pad, and when you go to sleep put them under your neck for, let’s say, 30 minutes. Pain from needles will bring the response from your body, and over time the hedache and stiffness will fade away.

    I sometimes even get asleep while on the needles.

    Best!

  31. Iskander says

    Looking at the picture for one more minute I see that such a curve will probably give a lot of pain. I have it small but flat. Bought it in Russia, on occasion.

    MAS, think about having a flat one and then cutting out a smaller piece that would fit the neck.

  32. says

    Mas: While reading Moshe’s book “Awareness Through Movement” might provide interest in the philosophical and physiological underpinnings of his technique, you really should see a skilled practitioner. The Feldenkrais Guild can provide a directory in your area. The technique is hands on with you on a table and occasionally moving around a space.

    The same goes for the The Alexander Technique, which many actors, dancers and athletes credit as helping them improve performance. While you may read about the technique, it is meant to be received through an instructor who works with you, hands on, going through the movements that you find most problematic.

    Both techniques are about retraining the psycho-motor system.

    Lastly, if you’re habitual perceptions and use of yourself are at the root of your issue, reading and doing things through this, pardon me, faulty wiring would likely be fruitless. The system needs input and observation from the outside. Your job, in treatment, is to notice how you are feeling as well as what may be different from moment to moment.

    Yes, this work will be an investment. A typical therapeutic route is usually 10 sessions. However, I’ve benefited for years since my sessions with an Alexander practitioner and the time and money was well worth it.

    http://www.alexandertechnique.com/research.htm

  33. ad ligtvoet says

    Michael,
    Shruggs can be part of a program to make the neck area stronger and thus more functional.The trapezius muscle in it’s totality is important because of it’s function in scapula position.Again a proper anamnese is a must since it is important to rule out problems with inner organs etc. regarding muscular pains. Temporarely experiencing a worse situation can be expected but doesn’t mean by itself that you should stop the exercise(causing it).However only you can feel what you feel , so be honest with that. It is not only the strenghtening effect that will help in the long term but also the increase in local bloodflow during a exercise . This because a tight muscle will become more acid because of reduced bloodflow and that will make the tissue more sensitive.
    ad

  34. Doug Holland says

    YogaPilatesFrankenchristFeldenkreistStretching/etc,etc won’t do a god dang thing,you dig?Find a competent instructor,hit the neck machine for flexion/extension,and if available,vise yourself into the Nautilus rotary neck.I’ve cured this shit on a lot of sufferers in just one treatment.They bring me gifts.

  35. Stu says

    Good post Doug. In my opinion Mike, since your in the area and I know she already offered, make contact with Ann-Marie.

  36. says

    Hi Michael,
    Thanks for your response. If you want to call me in a few weeks (considering the circumstances) I can give you an idea of what I do for our clients that you may be able to do on your own. I would love to reciprocate the kindness you’ve shown Greg and me over the last few years. Have a wonderful holiday season. Ann-Marie Anderson

  37. Marisa says

    I’m suffering from the exact same thing right now. I’m afraid that it got to the point where I had to go to a professional this time for some mysofascial release and now I’m feeling better, but I do have to go back for another session next week.
    Have you already tried the Rumbleroller? Or lying on a tennis ball while rolling up and down to hit the spots between the shoulder blades, the rear delt and the pecs?

    Links:
    Tennis ball release tutorial: http://laurensfitness.com/2008/02/29/tennis-ball-part-3-upper-body/

    Rumbleroller: http://www.rumbleroller.com/

  38. David Melhopt says

    Hello

    I have had trouble with neck and shoulder pain for years. I have tried many solutions and all offered temporary relief but the underlying problem never went away. Anyway. I have found the stretching exercises in “Prescriptive Stretching” by Kristian Berg to be a tremendous relief. And cheap. It is by far the best money I have ever spent. I bought a second copy just in case I lost the first one. I cannot recommend it strongly enough.

    I wish you all the best in finding relief for your pain.

  39. says

    @All – Thanks for all the ideas. I’ll do a post later summarizing them and outlining a version 1.

  40. says

    I came across your site because I am ready to take the plunge into making my own fermented vegetables. I have skimmed the comments about your neck pain, and the ice cream comment reminded me of a TCM doctor I used to see who could take my pulses and tell if I had consumed ice cream recently. He also told a client of mine her back pain would go away if she stopped eating bok choy, and lo and behold, it did! I think it has to do with cold, damp, acidity, and individual constitutions. So, you could see a Chinese Medicine practitioner to get some assistance with that, since it is very individual.

    I didn’t see anyone mention CranioSacral Therapy or Structural Integration (Rolfing). I practice CST, and receiving it has resolved most of my chronic issues. Rolfing initially woke me up in my body, and then it became too assertive for me, and my body responded to CST better. I have a colleague who travels between Seattle and NYC that I could put you in touch with if you are interested.

    I agree with trying Feldenkrais and Alexander, as they will actively help you to recognize you patterns and change them. I also think that adding CST or Rolfing (or both!) would increase your effects from movement therapy dramatically.

    Good luck,
    Elizabeth

  41. Gv says

    Try pulling your shoulder back, turn your head in the opposite direction and then down…

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