Got Aches & Pains? 6 Ways to Relieve Tight Shoulder & Neck Muscles
Our shoulders often bear the weight of the world—our own little world, at least.
Shoulder and neck muscles are often the first casualties of stress and tension. There are a lot of different reasons for this, one being that the shoulder joint itself is complex. Without getting too bogged down in anatomy (although it’s extremely interesting and worth understanding), here are six simple ways that can help relieve tension from both the shoulders and neck.
The middle and low portions of the trapezius muscle are weak in most people (weak rhomboids and lats can also contribute to shoulder pain1). The good news is, there are many yoga postures that will strengthen these areas, and one great place to start is with locust pose.
- Begin on your stomach. Place the tops of your feet on your mat hip-width apart, making sure to press each toenail—including your pinky toenails—into the ground.
- Reach through your legs as you press down into your pubic bone and tops of your feet—this helps elongate your tailbone and protect your low back.
- Modify your locust—to first focus on these upper back muscles—by keeping your feet on the floor as you take your arms alongside your body, palms facing in. Lift up through your triceps and shoulder heads.
- Focus on feeling an even sensation along your entire spine—including your neck.
Stretch it out.
While weak muscles can contribute to neck and shoulder pain, tight muscles can too. One of my favorite aspects of yoga is that it both strengthens and stretches muscles.
For increased joint mobility, practice both eagle and cow face poses.
- Cross your right elbow over your left, touching the backs of your hands or palms if you can.
- Release your shoulders down your back as you try to lift your elbows up to shoulder-height and press your forearms gently away from your face. Breathe fluidly through your nose and then switch sides.
For cow face:
- Place the back of your left hand onto your lower back. Wiggle it as high up between your shoulder blades as you are comfortably able to and then stretch your right arm alongside your right ear.
- Bend your right elbow to clasp your left hand or a strap (if you need one). Keep hugging your arms into your body as you lift your right elbow up towards the ceiling. And breathe— consciously release your belly muscles during your cow face stretch before switching sides.
Remember: Your shoulders are not earrings.
Throughout the day, notice if you let your shoulders drift up to your ears. This is habitual for many of us, and you can break it just like any bad habit. It sounds simple, but reminding yourself to keep your shoulders relaxed can do wonders.
Stretch it out—again.
You can actually relieve some shoulder-related pain by stretching your neck. To do this, you can release your right ear toward your right shoulder without hiking your shoulder up to meet your ear. One of my favorite tension tamers is to turn your chin towards your right collarbone and use the pressure of your right hand on the back of your hand to deepen the stretch.
Make sure that you’re releasing your shoulders and jaw as you do this. Another simple stretch is to gently turn your head to look over your shoulder and lightly pull your chin into your neck.
Add some magnesium into your life.
Magnesium therapy—especially bathing in an Epsom salt bath—can also be a great way to relieve muscle aches. Magnesium is frequently used to promote muscle relaxation, so immersing yourself in a magnesium-rich bath can help you soothe those tight muscles. (Plus, magnesium supplements can simultaneously promote deeper sleep—if your aches and pains are stopping you from getting comfortable in bed, consider magnesium a win-win for a good night's rest.)*
Notice any stress in your life.
Harboring emotional stress can sometimes lead to physical pain. Getting in touch with—and addressing—other issues in your life might have the added benefit of releasing pent up tension from your body. When you release that emotional tension, the physical tension might not be too far behind.
There are so many reasons for neck and shoulder pain, that sometimes it’s hard to believe that simple solutions work. It’s always best to experiment with what works for your body, as well as seeking out your doctor or physical therapist for a more targeted solution. At any rate, beginning to notice where in your body you can soften and strengthen is a great place to start.
Jennifer S. White is a writer and yoga instructor and the author of The Best Day of Your Life. She holds a Bachelor's degree in geology.