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How to relieve neck and shoulder tension

neck pain

Most people at some stage get tension in the neck, shoulders and upper back. It’s an area that tends to literally feel the weight of the world when we’re stressed or anxious, and gets tight when we have poor posture or spend a lot of time sitting craning our neck forward – usually to look at a screen.

Here are some ways you can relieve tension around the neck and shoulders.

Sit and stand tall

In most cases, neck and shoulder tension can be alleviated by being more mindful about your posture as you go about your day. While a half hour of yoga or a few select stretches can help reduce tightness in this area, preventative measures are going to be far more effective in the long term.

If you’re standing, check:

  • Feet have toes pointing straight forwards
  • Knees have a soft bend
  • Pelvis is level (tailbone is not curled under or arched back)
  • Spine is tall
  • Ribcage is wrapping in towards your midline for a sense of containment
  • Shoulders are open, back and down with a gentle squeeze between your shoulderblades
  • Chin is slightly in and down, creating length up the spine through to the crown of the head

If you’re sitting, do the same above checklist starting from the spine.

Check your work desk

Most people don’t have their work desks set up correctly. Check that:

  • Your feet are flat on the floor
  • Your knees are at a 90 degree bend
  • Your hips are at a 90 degree bend
  • The same points in the previous checklist starting from the spine
  • When you have your hands on your keyboard, they can float just above your keyboard with your elbows at a 90 degree bend
  • The top of your computer screen is level with your eyes and not so far away that you need to move your head forwards to see it

Check your screen gazing posture

Spend a fair bit of time at a computer, watching television or looking at your cellphone? It’s common for the chin to jut forwards as we try to focus on what’s in front of us. Heads are heavy things and designed to be stacked on top of our spine. So as soon as we shift out of that centre of gravity the muscles in our neck, shoulders and upper back need to spring to action to compensate.

Bring your chin in towards you and slightly down so that your head can rest on top of your spine with greater ease.

Do ‘U’ shapes

Sit with a tall spine, drop your chin down towards your stretch then trace ‘U shapes with it, taking your head to one side to look over your shoulder, dropping chin down to chest again then bringing it up to the other side to look over the opposite shoulder.

It’s commonly taught to take your head in a full circle up and around to stretch the neck, but this adds compression to the vertebrae at the back of the neck and strains the muscles at the front, so it’s best to stick to the ‘U’s.

Drop away

Sitting with a tall spine, keeping your eyegaze straight forwards, let your head drop away to one side bringing your ear down towards your shoulder. Allow for 6 slow, even breaths. Repeat other side. Don’t pull on your head with your hand (but you can use your hands to gently assist the head back to centre).

Open your heart

Sitting or standing with a tall spine, clasp hands behind the back and draw them strongly together, moving them back and down from your body. Focus on opening up through the front of your shoulders. Hold for 6 slow, even breaths.

Other stretches to help

Some other gentle stretches you could also do:

  • Uttanasana (Forward Fold) – Acts as traction for the spine and releases tension from upper back and shoulders
  • Adho Mukha Virasana (Extended Child’s Pose) or Balasana (Child’s Pose) – Lengthens the spine and upper back, supports the head
  • Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose) – Focus on opening up through the heart, you could even clasp hands underneath your body and reach them down towards your heels to open up more.
  • Pawanmuktasana shoulder rolls – Take shoulders in big circles shrugging them forwards up towards your ears then dropping them back and down for several slow rotations. Reverse direction and repeat.

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