What Does Neck And Shoulder Pain Really Mean?
Neck and shoulder pain are common places both inside and outside the gym. However, unfortunately for most people when pain persists they attack the problem at the site rather than seeking the source of what’s causing the pain itself.
Stop what you’re doing and take 3 deep breaths, in through your nose and out through your mouth. Make sure you take these breaths slowly so as not to strain your neck, shoulders, or chest during the inhale.
Chances are no matter what time of the day it is those were the first deep breath’s you’ve taken all day.
That’s a problem.
Most people think it’s because of their “desk jobs” that their posture looks like they’ve aged 10 years prematurely, however you might be surprised to learn that in actuality it has more to do with the way you breathe vs. the way you sit at your desk. Lucky for you it can all be reverse by the power of a breath and re-learning how use your diaphragm as a primary breathing muscle instead of a postural stabilizing muscle.
Below I’ve outlined a couple reasons as to why your neck and shoulders might cause you pain. Because this is likely a relatively new concept for most of you I’ve taken the time to give a little backdrop on the subject as well.
Why Should I Care About Breathing?
It’s funny because when you think about it, oxygen is something that we simply cannot live without. If we fail to breathe, we fail to feed our brains oxygen; we therefore fail to stay alive. Yet so many of the people I work and interact with on a daily basis fail to actually breathe the proper way. I can notice it almost immediately in their posture; the way they sit, the way they stand, the way they walk, and ultimately the way the move through life.
As humans we take between 20,000-22,000 breaths a day. When thought of in terms of a single-rep, like a push-up or a squat, there’s nothing we do more during our day than breathe. In fact it’s not uncommon for me to work with someone who has chronic neck and/or shoulder pain, may have digestive issues, or maybe just can’t think clearly. After 2-5 minutes of positional breathing it’s as if they’re an entirely new person!
The approach and exercises I use to correct someone’s breathing mechanics (and ultimately relieve their pain) stem from an organization called The Postural Restoration Institute, PRI for short. The institute’s director, Ron Hrsuka, has devoted his life to PRI. It’s a powerful concept and one that immediately grabbed my attention after I took their first of three, home study courses two years ago.
The stance PRI takes in relation to movement, posture, and performance, begins with asymmetries and the fact that everyone, whether you’re a “lefty” or a “righty”, has the same features.
From the outside our bodies appear to be completely symmetrical. We have two legs, two arms, two hands, two feet, 10 fingers, 10 toes (most of us), 2 shoulders, etc. etc. In fact it’s because of these symmetries that most people seek to continually create symmetrical qualities as they relate to performance. The problem however is that on the inside, we are exactly the opposite.
Take for example your heart, the engine of your body. There’s only 1 and it’s located only on the left side of our bodies. You have 1 liver that’s located on the right side and a spleen that’s on your left. You do have 2 leaflets to your diaphragm, but the right side attaches more prominently and the walls of your right diaphragm are actually thicker than the walls of your left.
PRI looks at these asymmetries, among others, and the profound affect it has on posture, gait, and performance. The best part is, whether you’re a lefty or a righty, it doesn’t matter because on the inside we’re all the same (there are unique differences in people who are born with disorders).
In a nutshell, the asymmetries inside our body predispose us to gravitate toward the right side of our bodies. We literally begin to shift our COG (center of gravity) over to the right more and more with each breath we take and slowly our diaphragms become “postural stabilizers” rather than our primary breathing muscle.
As a result our neck and shoulders are placed under distress and compensation patterns further develop.
Stop And Smell The Roses
The compensation patterns I just explained limit your ability to breathe the proper way and create torque and torsion on the ribs. In turn your shoulders begin to slump forward, which places strain on your middle and upper-back regions. As a result, your cervical spine (neck) has additional tension placed on it and you start to get what’s called a turtleneck. No, not the article of clothing you wear in the fall, but rather an extended-protruded neck position that often causes discomfort in the back of your neck.
This is how you end up with over developed neck, chest, and upper trap muscles; your body needs help breathing and thus finds it through accessory breathing muscles. This further indicates that your diaphragm is no longer being used as a breathing muscle but rather a postural stabilizing muscle.
For a lot of you this is going to seem waaay out there, but all I ask is that you give a few exercises a try. Our goal is to merely restore your proper breathing mechanics and allow your diaphragm to work as a breathing muscle rather than a stabilizing muscle. In turn you should feel lighter, more mobile, more energized, and most importantly, feel better!
Watch this video below to see how you can begin the process of “re-training” your diaphragm.
You’re essentially hitting the “reset” button with this exercise. The goal is to achieve what the institute refers to as your “Zone of Apposition”. It might take you a couple sets to get a feel for it, but when you’ve hit it, you’ll almost instantly feel like you can take a deeper inhale, easier.
Some helpful coaching cues:
- Don’t breath too quickly as this will automatically turn on your accessory breathing muscles in your neck, chest, and shoulders.
Instead, focus on breathing in through your nose slowly with the tongue placed on the roof of your mouth. You do this to actually help “shut off” your accessory breathing muscles in the neck and jaw.
- Hold the top and bottom of your inhale and exhales for 2-3 seconds.
Another great exercise, and one I like to use a lot with my clients is this one below…
If you did this properly you should have felt a stretch in the upper back when you inhaled. If not, try again but this time take more time in between breaths, pausing for 2-3 seconds at the top and bottom of each breath. Also, when you inhale direct your breath in between the shoulder blades.
Too often when people start to perform these exercises they breathe much too quickly and much to aggressively. When performing exercises that are being used to re-train your diaphragm think of the actual breath itself as your “weight”. The power and direction of the breath can dramatically increase the result you get from the exercise.
Summing It Up
At the end of the day the position you’re placed in featured in the video above, is re-directing airflow to areas in need. Thinking of each individual breath as a single-repetition might help you to slow down, relax, and get more out of the drill.
My suggestion is to think of these exercises as corrective in nature, but more of a “pill” that a doctor would prescribe you.
If your doctor told you to take a pill 3-times a day, would you do it? Of course you would! These exercise are your “pills” for neck and shoulder pain. Take them 3-times a day; breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
If you’re an athlete, using exercises such as these can help you run faster, jump higher, and even lift more weight. If you’re a “weekend warrior”, these can be used to sneak in some serious corrective exercise and make the most out of your weekend activities.
Perhaps most profoundly, if you’re a human!! As we all are, these exercises will ultimately help you feel “lighter”, put you in a better mood, and instantly give you the ability to breath more freely thus minimizing your neck and shoulder pain or perhaps even relieving it altogether.
These exercises are merely the tippity-top of the iceberg when it comes to true postural restoration but will at least provide a starting point. There are literally hundreds more exercises and much more discussion that goes beyond this post. I encourage you to “own” these exercises and see what happens with both your mind and body.
This post might also begin to shed light on how practices such as meditation and yoga provide so many benefits to the people who practice them. I make an effort to meditate every day as a means to make sure I start of my day breathing properly. The headspace app I mentioned last week is great for beginners.
Remember, the next time you’re feeling old and achy stop and take a few breaths in one of the positions showcased here. Your neck and shoulders will thank you!