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Neck & Shoulder Tension

Neck and shoulder tension… we’ve all experienced it. It’s terrible. It causes limited range-of-motion, discomfort while trying to sleep, sometimes, preventing sleep, and if prolonged, can lead to headaches and other body aches.

For many, upper back and neck tension is attributed to forward head carriage and working a desk job. Most of our life is spent doing flexion-type actions that exist in the sagittal plane… driving… eating… holding a phone… typing at a computer… bicep curls… walking…

This type of movement repeatedly uses muscles that “flex” the body forwards . The muscles that put the body in forward flexion are countless: psoas major (hip flexor), abdominals, sternocleidomastoid, pectoralis minor, biceps brachii, scalenes, and the list goes on.

The result of repetition can cause many issues in the muscles and other soft tissues. For one, the muscles get tight! To put it simply, the muscles get shorted. Obviously, there’s a more scientific explanation for this, but to put it in a quick visual the distance between A ——– B becomes more like A — B. See how this can cause problems to overall function and possible affect strength? Your most relatable experience is probably not being able to turn your head all the way to look to the side or maybe it hurts to look over your shoulder when changing lanes.

The reason we end up so out of balance with the repeated forward flexion is that we don’t utilize the antagonist muscles as often. Think about it, when was the last time you stood up from your desk to do a backbend? Or opened your chest with a “doorway stretch.”

Quick vocabulary (from the Merriam-Webster dictionary)

Agonist: a muscle that is controlled by the action of an antagonist with which it is paired

Antagonist: a muscle that contracts with and limits the action of an agonist with which it is paired

Example: the paraspinal/erector spinae muscles on the back that do extension (backbend) act as an antagonist to the abdominal muscles on the front of the body that bring the ribs closer to the hips bones because their primary actions oppose each other.

You may hear the massage therapists at The Massage Space talk about how important it is to work on the chest muscles to relieve tension on the back. The video below demonstrates the movement pectoralis minor performs within the shoulder girdle. When pec minor shortens, it moves the shoulder blades away from one another putting an increased taut tension in the muscles between the spine and the shoulder blades: trapezius, rhomboids, serratus posterior superior. The continued stress can cause tension up the length of the spine as the surrounding muscle’s lengths are compromised.

An important concept to understand are Trigger Points. Trigger points are talked about all over the place, not just in massage therapy, but WHAT THE HECK ARE THEY?

Officially, as defined by the founder, Janet Travell, trigger points are a nodule within a taut band. Imagine a Twizzlers rope (not twisted – parallel, straight fibers) with a Gobstopper stuck in the rope. In the muscle tissue, it causes a group of shortened muscles fibers, and the surrounding fibers get stretched and taught. All in all, the tissues are tight, but for different reasons.

The most important characteristic of a trigger point is the fact that it refers sensation elsewhere. For example, applying static compression on trapezius near where the shoulder meets the neck may cause sensation to travel into the ear, the eyes, all over the head even though pressure is not being applied in that region.

Think of a trigger point as a button that turns on symptoms that might duplicate someones symptoms. Let’s use the trapezius trigger point example from above: a client presents with chronic headaches that start at the base of the skull in the back and get severe enough to sometimes also be felt behind the eyes.

Why is this important? If pressing a trigger point “turns on” a client’s pain symptoms, it’s indicative that the muscle with the trigger point within it is the muscle with the dysfunction that ultimately causing the client’s symptoms. Super cool, right!?

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Other than getting great body work care from your favorite massage therapist(s), or other providers (chiropractors, physical therapists, acupuncturists…. etc.), yoga is a great practice, that can be free!, and serves up numerous benefits.


Yoga is not only a mental and spiritual practice but also a physical practice. The nature of the poses and movements during a yoga practice lengthen muscles, which ultimately releases muscle tension.

Jennifer Fahler, of Good & Twisted Yoga (pictured above), sums up the benefits of a yoga practice.

Our physical body is stressed and affected by many things: how we sit or stand, temperature changes, repetitive movements, what we eat and drink, and what we are thinking. The neck and shoulders are prime holders of our stress. Neck muscles react strongly to stress and this tendency can be further aggravated by driving or by sitting at a desk all day. Many of us have the habit of guarding ourselves in stressful situations by tightening the muscles in our neck and shoulders in an unconscious attempt to brace against trauma, real or imagined.

Stretching the neck muscles has an immediate effect on your state of mind. Lengthening the larger muscles defuses stress held in the body and helps the whole body to relax. Lengthening and stretching small neck muscles will help quiet the mind and bring on a sense of well-being. This can also help prevent tension headaches.  The neck is truly the body-mind connection, and an area of focus in yoga classes.  For targeted work in releasing tension from this area, try the Good & Flexible class at Good & Twisted Yoga!