Many aches and pains in the neck and back stem from “tight” muscles. In reality, many muscles remain in a prolonged contracted state due to a combination of physical or emotional stress, and do not relax at times when they should.
Some muscles are supposed to be “on” at low levels for long periods of time. An example is our small postural muscles. I call these our “marathon runners.” However, we have many muscles that are only meant to be used in short bursts, our “sprinters.” If we use them in unintended ways, such as keeping them “on” too long or too frequently, they can fatigue or tighten and eventually can lead to unwanted tension and potentially pain.
A first step in helping alleviate some neck and back pain is bringing awareness to the fact that you may be holding this unwanted tension in your body. This tension often occurs because in modern society, we are repeatedly activating our sympathetic nervous system, the “fight or flight” system. Nowadays, instead of running away from a lion, we activate our stress response for less “dangerous” reasons such as sitting in traffic, anticipating an uncomfortable meeting at work, or from looking at our phones too often.
While some stress is good and actually a positive thing, having it occur too often or for too long can have negative consequences, with pain and tension being only a couple examples. I come across many patients who don’t even realize that they are actively holding tension in their neck and shoulders or low back because they have done it for so long, it has become “normal.”
So, what do we do? Awareness that we’re in this high-tension state is often the hardest part. But once we achieve that, increasing our awareness of habitual postures and positions as well as how we breathe is another important step.
Start by checking your breathing and body posture first. When we are in pain or other stressful situations, we often either hold our breath, or take short, shallow chest breaths. Short, shallow breathing means we have to increase our breathing rate and also results in an increased heart rate, which can further fuel the feelings of anxiety.
Furthermore, when we’re breathing shorter and quicker, instead of using the diaphragm as our main muscle of respiration, we begin to use our chest and neck muscles. If we already have pain or tension there, this just adds to that tension with more use. You can begin to see the vicious cycle.
If able, lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat. Place one hand on your chest, just under the collar bones, and the other over your belly. Breathe normal. Where do you feel the breath the most- in your chest or abdomen? If it’s the chest, try to concentrate on your abdomen expanding with every inhale and deflating with every exhale. Take your time and go slow. This is how we normally breathe, so we know how to do it! Your body wants to breathe this way, it just might have gotten out of the habit. But the good news is, it can be restored relatively easily!
Want even more information on how and why breathing is so important and some tips to help get you breathing better? Stay tuned to the “Physical Therapy Soapbox Podcast” for two episodes coming in March!
By correcting it through proper physical therapy we provide you with a simple solution for your neck pain and back pain. Hands on physical therapy can also help to reduce tension in muscles, improving motion and lowering your pain.
If you find yourself in pain, aching, injured or unable to move like you want to, simply give us a call. Our expert physical therapists provide a comprehensive evaluation to find the root cause of your problem, then put together a complete plan that works to get you moving, pain-free again. Call Virginia Center for Spine and Sport today to learn more!
Thanks for reading,