by Kristina Page
Through 20 years of volleyball, a couple of car accidents, several high-stress jobs, and bad computer posture, I have developed chronic neck and shoulder pain. It started more than ten years ago and prompted me to use massage as a corrective measure. Over the years, I have gotten better and better at managing the chronic tension and pain that starts in my right shoulder and creeps up into my head and across my upper back. I would love to say that massage alone fixes it, but I find that, for me, a combination of approaches works best.
This is not a “Ten Quick Steps to a Pain Free Life” article. These things work together over time and, when I stop doing them, my problem area flares up again.
Of course, I receive massage. I have found my optimal timing to be every other week. I get a medium to firm pressure (but not too deep) targeted massage. If I want a full-body session, I go for 90 minutes because I find I need the therapist to spend a lot of time on my neck and shoulders. This helps me loosen up the tension in my muscles, reduce the pain I feel, and sets the groundwork for my other initiatives.
Staying on top of my exercise regimen, particularly stretching and weight-bearing exercise, makes a big difference. I aim for five hours of activity per week to keep my weight, stress, and pain in-check. When the balance gets disrupted and I get out of my exercise habit, my neck and shoulder tighten back up and the effects of my massages don’t last as long. Other little aches and pains will start creeping in, too. On a related note- I lost a bunch of weight a few years ago (50 pounds) and with it, I lost my knee, ankle, and hip pain.
If I have injured it (like after my last car accident), I have found acupuncture helpful. I also had to take a year off from sports in order to stop re-injuring it.
Minding my posture helps keep me feeling good. When I catch myself leaning in to my work too much or hunching over while walking, I straighten up and drop my shoulders. I have a few exercises and stretches I do to target the neck and shoulder girdle plus I work on my core as part of my regular exercise program. While I often find myself out of alignment, being mindful and frequently putting myself back into alignment helps.
Taking short stretch or walk breaks at work keeps me loose. Whenever I feel myself tightening up, I take a little break to move around. If I have had a particularly strenuous day, I will stretch at the end of it as if I had worked out.
I set my computer work station and massage table as best as I can to an optimal height.
Sleep is very important to me, and I make sure I get a full night’s sleep 99% of the time. At a certain point, I had to get a new pillow. I opted for one of our buckwheat hull pillows and it made a world of difference. I also thought the mattress was too firm, so I added some egg foam to my side and that made an improvement. I also hug a pillow for support. At times when I have been injured, I have tried to sleep more on my back and less on my sides. Now that the area feels better, I have returned to sleeping normally.
For repetitive tasks like raking, sweeping, massaging, carrying stuff (even a purse), and driving, I try to switch back and forth between arms or use both arms fairly equally. On the purse topic, I do not carry a heavy purse far. If I am out and about, I take the bare minimum and leave the heavy stuff at home.
I have learned to respect my limits. I know just about how much I can push it, and sometimes I choose to go beyond, but I know I’ll pay the price. Of course, I also know how to reel it back in.
Keeping my stress level down helps as well. In addition to what I do above, I practice mindfulness and meditation (though not as often or as well as I should). I have also had to learn to change my mindset about certain things that act as stressors for me. Other stress busters include: getting out into nature as much as possible, saying “no” when I need to, taking time off, and nurturing positive relationships. Since life will always have some level of stress in it, I have to work the most at this one.
When I do get flare-ups, I do a combination of massage, self-massage, moist heat, breathing exercises, stretching, and strengthening to get everything to settle back down. Then I look at what has gotten out of balance and work to correct it. I hope that by sharing what works for me, you get inspiration to seek out what works for you!