A Better Way to Manage Shoulder Pain

Do you ever feel like your shoulders are up around your ears, and you have an annoying knot in the muscles that never goes away?

This can be caused by a muscle that is stretched out tight, similar to pulling a rubber band tight. The muscle is called the levator scapula. The picture below shows how the muscle attaches to the neck (cervical spine) near the ear and to the top of our shoulder blade.

(picture by Biel's Trail Guide to Anatomy)

When the shoulder blade moves down and away from the ear, the muscle will get stretched. While this might sound like a good thing and should feel good, our muscles are not meant to continually be stretched.

What can you do about it?

While massaging it may feel better temporarily, it is not addressing the cause of the overstretched muscle.

Avoid posture cues like pull your shoulders down and back or squeeze your shoulder blades together. This action will stretch that muscle. We want the shoulder to feel stable and anchored rather than tense and locked down. Avoid the temptation to squeeze your arms to your side during exercise which will pull your shoulder blades down over stretching the levator muscle. 

Instead, "think" of your collar bones being long, wide, or open across your chest. Another great cue is to picture balloons or bubbles between your arms and your body. The idea is to get a sense of lifting or lightness in the shoulder.   These are excellent cues for posture and for setting up your upper body exercises. These cues should feel effortless, at least physically.

It is important to note that initially, you may feel you cannot lift as much weight in this new and more optimal strategy. However, over time and with practice, you will continue to build strength, your shoulder and neck will feel better, and your shoulder joints will thank you long term.


THIS:  Be sure to keep the elbows away from the sides and parallel or slightly in front of your torso.

Imagine your collar bones as open and wide.  Try exhaling as the arms go down and start your inhale and let the arms come up.  Maintain your spine and head alignment.  Control the force from the weight as you raise and lower the weight  Avoid using momentum.

THE ADVANTAGE: Muscles that stabilize the shoulder will be more active and will therefore learn how to be set in a more optimal and efficient position that does not inadvertently stress and wear the joint.

NOT THAT:  Avoid squeezing the shoulder blades down and back.  No bracing the arms next to your body with elbows behind the torso.  No holding the abs in unless you are using heavier dumbbells.

THE DISADVANTAGE: The shoulder will be placed in a non-optimal position that creates extra wear on the joint and could lead to a degenerative joint disease like arthritis.