About this time of year, as the weather gets colder, we see a lot of people whose usually manageable (or non-existent) neck and shoulder pain has become more noticeable, or even unbearable. I like to call this the ‘cold weather shoulder’. In this post, we look at some possible causes and what you can do to prevent or alleviate it.
Most people walk around with a certain level of tension in their neck and shoulders. Desk work, overtraining the chest, heavy bags, lifting children – there are myriad ways in which our posture is compromised in such a way to overuse and/or strain those muscles. Often it only takes one extra aggravating factor to set off a pain signal, or in some cases a spasm that restricts our ability to turn our head from side to side – in this case, cold weather.
Applying heat or cold to our neck is one of the easiest ways to change our body temperature. When the weather gets cold, you may, without realising it, adjust your posture to try and protect your neck from the cold, which usually means lowering your head further forward and lifting up your shoulder, placing additional strain on your neck and shoulder muscles.
How to Avoid
So how can you avoid this? Number one, wear a warm scarf. When you keep your neck warm with a scarf (or similar winter wear) it’s much easier to keep your posture in a better position in the face of a blustery winter day. You’ll then be able to drop your shoulders and lengthen your neck comfortably. While it will take some time to break the habit of hunching over in the cold weather, it will be easier to do if your neck is warm. Whenever you can remember, check your posture when you’re outside to make sure you’re not lifting your shoulders up and sticking your chin out. If you carry a bag or a rucksack, imagine it’s a weight pulling your shoulders back and down, encouraging a better posture.
While we all know we should have perfect posture all the time, it’s not always doable. As you work to improve your posture, here are a couple stretches that should help relieve some muscle tension caused by poor posture. As with all stretches/exercises, you should check with a health professional before starting any new regime, especially if you have any pre-existing problems in your neck and shoulders. For the full disclaimer, see the end of the post.
Most of us have a tight chest that pulls our neck and shoulders forward, so to make it easier to hold open and drop your shoulders, stretch out your chest. If you have seen me before for neck and shoulder pain, you probably know this one, but if not, here’s a recap:
1) Find a doorframe, pillar or post. Put your arm at a 90 degree angle from your chest, with your body in line with your hand.
2) Keep your shoulder down and chest aligned. Gently lean forward to find a slight stretch in your chest. If you feel it in the back of your shoulder, take a deep breath and let go of the muscles in your back.
3) Don’t let your shoulder come up or stay behind with your arm. Make sure you’re not pushing from your back – lean with body weight.
4) If you have a history of shoulder problems or dislocations this stretch may not be right for you – check with a health professional before trying especially if you fall in one of those categories.
Neck/Top of Shoulder Stretch
To help reduce the pain in your neck and shoulders, here’s a simple neck and shoulder stretch, and like the chest stretch, you can do it anywhere.
1) To keep your shoulder down, take the hand of the side you want to stretch and grab the edge of your seat, a shelf, or wrap it around your back.
2) Gently tilt your head away from the shoulder. To stretch the side of the neck, face forward. To stretch the back of the neck, face down.
3) Once you feel a GENTLE stretch, hold for 10-30 seconds. If you feel a release, you can increase the stretch slightly, but you should never over-stretch or force anything.
4) Important: whenever you tilt your head, do it slowly and imagine that you’re lifting your head away from your shoulders instead of compressing your neck (think: long neck). If it is painful, don’t do it, and if you have a history of neck problems or injury, or you have any cause for concern regarding your neck, always check with a health practitioner before engaging in new exercises.
Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. All reasonable care has been taken in compiling the information but no warranty is made as to its accuracy. For diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions it is always advisable to consult a doctor or other health care professional to ensure the specific details of your case are taken into account. You should always consult a healthcare professional before embarking on any new exercise program, including stretching, especially where there are pre-existing conditions.