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Why do my neck and shoulders hurt at work?


One of the commonest questions we’re asked at City Sports Massage is ‘Why do my neck and shoulders hurt?’ If you’re suffering from aching, painful shoulders, neck stiffness or neck pain, and possibly headaches too then also you’ll probably know a stiff neck and shoulders is also a common cause of the tension headache. Although neck pain and shoulder pain can have many causes, it often comes primarily from work posture and stress, and is one of the most common, aggravating – yet easy-to-treat set of conditions found in the modern-day work environment.

Why do my neck and shoulders hurt at work?

Why do my neck and shoulders hurt at work?

Surprisingly enough we weren’t designed to sit in the same position for 8 hours a day. But before you go and tell your boss what you think of him/her, and jump on a jet plane for a ‘long break’, there’s some incredibly basic and easy-to-follow principles you can learn, which could also help you understand why your neck and shoulders hurt.

At the bottom of this quandary is usually one word – MOVEMENT. The simple reason most of us suffer these aches and pains is LACK OF MOVEMENT. In short, your body is designed for movement. When it doesn’t move for long periods of time it becomes unhappy, starts complaining, and that’s when you feel ‘pain’.

What causes stiff, aching muscles?

Our muscles are coated in a strong, thin film of connective tissue called ‘fascia’. If you’ve ever prepared chicken, you might remember taking the skin off the bird and seeing the membrane covering all the muscles? That’s fascia. As well as covering the whole muscle, it covers all the individual muscle fibres too. In fact, our ‘muscle’ is nothing more than a type of protein paste, and fascia encapsulates that paste, much like a sausage, to form individual, microscopic muscle fibres. These in turn are coated with more fascia – which binds all the ‘sausages’ together to form what you see as a big ‘muscle’.

Following so far? Now as you can imagine, every time our muscles move, the fascia gets worn down. In order to maintain our structure, it needs to grow – constantly. Which is all well and good in a healthy, moving body – it grows, it gets worn down etc, etc. But in a body that isn’t moving? Well, that’s where the drama really starts.

But how does that make my neck and shoulders hurt?

You’re sitting at your desk, slumped over the computer in the same position you’ve been in all day. The muscles aren’t moving, yet the fascia continues to grow. As we now know, the fascia isn’t being ‘worn down’ by the movement, so, continuing to grow, it starts further restricting movement in already stiff areas. It’s not getting lubricated so it becomes dry and forms a hard, compact substance. Furthermore, muscle waste such as lactic acid gets trapped too. You now have a big, nasty traffic jam going on. And we all know how painful they can be! Is it starting to make sense why your neck and shoulders hurt?

What is the best treatment if my neck and shoulders hurt?

Well if you remember, the cause of the pain in this scenario is LACK OF MOVEMENT. So it stands to reason that the solution here might be MOVEMENT. Experiment with moving those muscles, regularly. Get up, go and get a drink of water. Slowly shrug your shoulders – both forwards, and backwards. Slowly rotate your neck by looking to the left, then the right. Then slowly look down, taking your chin to your chest. Everything should be done slowly, whilst remembering to breathe, and taking care to really feel what you are doing. Try shutting your eyes when you do it – this will heighten your senses surrounding your body awareness. You’ll probably notice that your neck and shoulders hurt, so be kind to yourself, be slow, progressive and gentle. Often pain can be described as ‘right’, or ‘wrong’ pain. If it feels like a ‘wrong’ pain, then it’s important you STOP, and consult a Doctor, or other medical professional.

And once you’ve gone through these basic movements, get creative. You don’t have to launch into a full-on dance routine in the middle of the office, but you can explore where your restrictions are, and see how they feel when you slowly stretch them.

It might all feel a little clunky at first. You’ll probably wonder if you’re doing it right. But keep trying, it’s an experiential, learning process.

Remember that getting to know your body is a journey, so don’t expect it to all come at once. If you want to read more about what you can do when your neck and shoulders hurt you can read our article entitled ‘How to relieve stiff neck and shoulders in 6 easy ways’ by clicking here. You can also read our sports massage related article ‘Do sore, painful shoulders, stiff neck or tight chest sound familiar? Find pain relief with breathing.’

What my keyboard/work position/desk height? Are they important factors?

Yes! It is important that you are comfortable at your desk. The angle of your seat, height of your desk, even the type of keyboard you are using can create pain. Here’s a great article on setting up an ergonomic workstation!

What about sports massage? Do I need deep tissue massage? or will all of these tips be enough?

Sometimes it’s as simple as learning how to move the body – and the techniques described above will suffice. But sometimes your body will be so ‘set’ in a cycle of dysfunction that it will have created further imbalances and weaknesses. At City Sports Massage London we have many years of experience treating stiff neck and shoulders, and we show our clients easy stretches and relaxing exercises that will ease a painful neck and shoulders, and help to restore function. If the sports massage and deep tissue massage treatments we give are not providing a solution that lasts, we will examine why, and refer to another specialist where appropriate. We never want you to return for a sports massage unnecessarily, as our clients will verify!

Please note that this article is for general information purposes only. If you are suffering from a medical condition, diagnosis should be carried out by your Doctor, or a medical professional. City Sports Massage are not liable for the content of any external websites.

© Jon Gee 2013 Jon Gee is the founder of City Sports Massage, a team of sports massage therapists based in London who combine deep-tissue massage therapy with stress-reduction and body-awareness techniques. Jon has worked with body dynamics for almost two decades, and specialises in treating pain that is chronic and longstanding. He often incorporates the teaching of mindfulness, breathing and body awareness skills, in order to help clients self-manage, and be less reliant on massage/bodywork treatments.
Jon also teaches other massage therapists, and health practitioners, and has written articles on his teaching methods for the peer-reviewed Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies.