For the millions of us that spend our days working at a computer, typing on a keyboard and using a mouse, it’s not at all unusual to experience chronic tension and pain in the upper back and neck areas. In this article, we’ll talk about what muscles are getting overwhelmed by this repetitive stress, and what we can do to get out of pain and integrate the upper back with the rest of the body.
The upper back and neck (i.e., from the area between the shoulder blades moving upwards into the neck, and even along the top of the shoulder blades towards the shoulders) is an easy area to ‘hunch up’ and hold tension. The muscles there tend to volunteer themselves for all activities that the upper back needs strength for, like carrying groceries or a child, or reaching up for something on a shelf. They also tend to hunch up unnecessarily as we reach our arms forward to type on a keyboard, or drive a car, and sometimes get stuck there! In this way they get stressed and overused, causing upper back pain, and other muscles that could support their function aren’t asked to get involved.
Upper Back Basics
There are two groups of muscles that we’re going to focus on in the upper back (although there are many, many more!). The first group of muscles work together to shrug the shoulders and lift the shoulder blades up the back.
The second group of muscles moves the shoulder blades from side to side. They attach the inner edge of the shoulder blade to the spine, and the outer edge of the shoulder blade to the ribs under the armpit (imagine the two sets of muscles playing tug-of-war with the shoulder blades from side to side).
“Codependent” Muscles: They Want To Do It All For You!
A habitual place for so many of us to carry tension is in the upper back and neck. The shoulder shrugging muscles have a tendency to jump in and try to do actions for us that aren’t their job (try this: lying on your back with knees bent, do an abdominal crunch, and then curl your right elbow to your left knee. See if you can get your right shoulderblade completely off the floor without lifting your shoulder up to your ear – those muscles are going to want to pitch in!). As a result, they tend to be hypertonic – constantly contracted to the point that they don’t know how to release. They also drive discomfort from the upper back up into the neck.
In addition, the ‘hunched forward’ shape that we make with our shoulders and arms when we are typing on a keyboard (or driving a car) pulls the shoulder blades away from each other and stresses one set of ‘tug-of-war’ muscles while weakening the other.
My Job Requires That I Sit at A Computer
So how do we take care of this sensitive and overworked area, when we can’t get away from the requirements of our daily lives? Ergonomics aside, here’s what you can do to relieve your poor muscles.
1. Take a hot bath, or get a massage. Both will send messages to the constantly contracting muscles to relax. A hot bath softens the muscles (try using Epsom salts as well to draw out the ache) and a massage will increase blood and oxygen flow to the area and can release more specific areas of tension and holding.
2. Self Massage. You can get all of the benefits of going to a massage therapist with a self-massage therapy program using Yoga Tune Up® Therapy Balls. The Therapy Balls work to target areas of tension just like a massage therapist would with their fingers, while you control the duration and intensity. There is a great series for the Upper Body that you can find here.
3. Begin a Stretching and Strengthening routine. It’s important to take care of these muscles so that our bodies don’t become permanently stuck in this position, causing further health and posture problems down the road. If you haven’t started doing this yet, now is the time to begin a yoga routine.
Our lives may make certain demands on our bodies that we can’t change, but we can put in a little time and effort to relieve pain, release tension, and feel better overall!
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