Ease the Ache in Your Neck and Shoulders

Your neck is aching, you’ve got a knot between your shoulder blades, and your upper back feels tight: Sound familiar? If so, the likely culprits are your trapezius muscles (“traps”)—broad, triangular muscles at the back of your neck that extend over your upper shoulders and down to your mid-back.

Any time your shoulders and head are pulled forward, it puts stress on the muscles of the middle and upper back. Many activities—sitting at a computer, preparing food, using a cell phone or tablet, reading, sewing—can put you in a position in which your shoulders, head, and neck are bent forward.

Here are some strategies that can help prevent or relieve upper back pain.

Use Proper Posture

Sit up straight—imagine that you are a puppet being pulled up on strings. If you slouch constantly, it means you’re losing the ability to stabilize your shoulders, which roll forward, pulling your traps with them and causing tension and pain.

Also, check your posture while you’re traveling. When you travel on a plane, bus, or train, keep your seat in the fully upright position and sit as tall as possible. If you’re driving a car, don’t recline the seat back; that forces your head forward and puts additional stress on your upper traps.

Take Frequent Breaks

If you feel yourself starting to slouch, get up and take a short break. Gently move your head from side to side, pull your shoulders up and back, and walk around for a few minutes. Taking a break every hour is a good preventive strategy. If you can’t get up and walk around, stop what you’re doing, sit up straight, and gently lift your chest up, allowing your shoulders to roll back and down. Take several deep breaths and try to maintain this posture when you return to your task.

Exercise Regularly

If you don’t exercise, your posture and pain are likely to worsen. Eventually, you may find you have difficulty carrying things or reaching overhead because your upper back muscles have become weak and tight. Start with the exercises shown below in Moves of the Month. Also try walking across a room with a book on your head at least once a day. In addition to improving balance and posture, this exercise lengthens your spine as you push up against gravity. Or, sit with a book on your head to see what it feels like, and then try to duplicate that position every time you’re sitting or standing.

Finally, if you have chronic, recurring neck and/or shoulder pain, or if you experience numbness or tingling in your arms or hands, report it to your doctor; he or she can conduct an evaluation, order tests if they’re needed to identify the cause, and determine if medical treatment may be appropriate.

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