Poor computers. They get blamed for so many evils, not the least of which are all our posture ills.
Hunched shoulders? Too much time in front of the screen.
Neck pain? Stop poking that smartphone.
Stabbing pain in the middle of your back? Must be your desk set up. (Also, this.)
Not that our electromagnetic glowing rectangles are totally blameless. Sure, hunching over spreadsheets and databases while crouching on hideous, lumpy “ergonomic” seats can do a number on your body (the first time I really noticed pain in my shoulders was when I got hired as a teenager to clean a health insurance company’s database and spent whole days in front of one of those ancient black screens with courier font blinking at me in lime green).
But there are a lot of reasons that shoulder tension happens. And this is one of those chicken-egg type scenarios that we find so frequently when it comes to the human body.
Back in the fifties, doctors used to have to see patients suffering from gastric ulcers. This was a seriously uncomfortable topic for these uptight, mind-body separation folks who believed that physical ailments had nothing to do with psychology (because the mind is totally different from the body and they’re, like, not even connected, obviously).
It was thought at the time that ulcers were caused by stress. Eek. Now doctors had to have a chat about lifestyle (ewwww!).
Imagine their relief when years later researchers discovered that ulcers are caused by a certain bacteria in the gut, H. Pylori.
Phfeww! Now doctors could just prescribe some antibiotics and go on their merry little medical way, no squirmy convos about stress needed.
Imagine their frustration, then, when we later found that H. Pylori lives in the viscera of around 80% of all humans and is typically asymptomatic except when exacerbated by stress.
Crap. Now we’re back to those uncomfortable little talks again.
I tell you this because, “Why is my shoulder tight?” is probably the most common question I hear. You want to know what’s causing all that shoulder tension, I get it.
Well, like the doctors above, I can point to some very physical triggers – computers, mousing, laptops in particular aren’t great, carrying heavy toddlers on one hip, of course athletic pursuits play a role, injuries, etc.
But wait, there’s more!
A few years ago, I was working on some horses at a stable in the Portola Valley of California. A lovely woman who had similar training to me struck up a conversation. She specialized in something called TMJ disorder, basically jaw tension and pain.
I loved what she told her clients. “Listen, you can keep coming in here and paying me to help you deal with this, but you’d be best served to go home and figure out why this is happening in the first place.”
i.e. what are you so stressed about, bro?
Because jaw tension, teeth grinding and jaw clenching, those are symptoms of inner friction. Sure, you could have an injury that’s causing this, but nine times out of twelve, it’s stress related. And, like the bacteria scenario, stress exacerbates tension from injuries.
Well, shoulders are like this also. There is, perhaps, no part of the human anatomy that’s so physically expressive (barring facial expressions and straight up words, of course).
Look at magazine ads sometime. Even the covers of magazines are great. Those models really use their shoulders.
They can make themselves look friendly and warm, seductive, innocent, sassy, strong, confident, introspective….
All just by tilting their shoulders a little differently.
Most of us don’t consciously pose our shoulders (thank god). But, our shoulders do express our thoughts, feelings and beliefs, both lifelong perceptions of ourselves and our current, fleeting mood.
It’s worth noting that your shoulder isn’t something separate from you that’s attacking you with all this uncomfortable tightness. You might ask me why it’s tight, I’m going to throw back at you that it’s not tight, you are tight. That shoulder has a brain, and you happen to share the same one with it.
You know how I’m a sucker for language reflecting physical stuff, right? (Admit it, you totally knew this was coming.)
We have numerous linguistic metaphors for stress in our shoulders.
She has the weight of the world on her shoulders.
Shoulder the burden.
A chip on his shoulder.
A shoulder to cry on.
It’s no wonder shoulder tension is a huge complaint. They should be called should-ers, actually, because on your shoulders is where all your “shoulds” rest.
All the things you think you should be doing, the roles you’re supposed to fill, the things you’re supposed to do, clothes you should wear, the way your body should (or shouldn’t) look, the needs of everyone around you, the responsibilities you may or may not actually have to take on.
So, are your shoulders tight because your pec minor is short, your serratus anterior is causing your scapula to wrap around your rib cage and restrict your overhead mobility?
But why are those muscles tight in the first place?
What burden are you shouldering that you can just put down right now?
When you pause to notice that you’re moving so fast you forgot to breathe (more common than you’d imagine), that social situations are making you nervous and anxious and you’re tightening up those armpits (yes, these are part of your shoulder), that you don’t want to be seen in the workplace – either because people might start gunning for you or because you’re just more of a background, introverted type – so you clamp down on your lungs and stop filling your chest with oxygen (by the way, have we talked about the fact that your ribs and shoulders are intricately related?)….
With this kind of awareness is where real change happens.
Because you can stretch your shoulders until you’re blue and the face (and your butt’s covered in purple polka dots), but if you don’t look at why that tension is happening in the first place, you’re going to keep coming back to square one over and over again.