Neck, Shoulders And Stress
The neck is one of the most flexible part of the spine. It is able to bend to the front and side, backwards and allowing a large degree of rotation. These movements are engineered by many muscles. Our head is a heavy weight for our neck to support. Many smaller muscles work together in order to keep it balanced. Because of this close relationship, it is common for tension in the neck muscles to affect the scalp muscles leading to tension headaches.
The shoulder is a ball and socket joint which allows a very wide range of movement. Unlike the hip, the shoulder socket relies on muscles, tendons and ligaments to hold the arm in place, rather than having it kept in place by bones. These softer tissues are more likely to be strained or damaged by over-use, poor posture, or sudden vigorous exercise.
Some of the main muscles of the neck and shoulders are latissimus dorsi, which helps to pull the arms back and down, the pectorals which work in the opposite way, the trapezius which shrug the shoulders and pull the head back, levator scapulae which stabilize the shoulder blades during other movements, and sternocleidomastoid which turns the head and pulls it forwards.
If one of these muscles is strained, you may suffer from headaches, stiff neck, frozen shoulder and even a trapped nerve. This could show itself as pins and needles or discomfort traveling beyond the injured neck and shoulder region. If movement is restricted, circulation will tend to suffer, resulting in a buildup of muscles wastes in the area. This then causes further stiffness and lack of movement.
Of all the parts of the body, the neck and shoulders are the most commonly affected by the physical signs of stress. When we are fearful or anxious, our body produces the chemical adrenaline in much higher levels than usual. One purpose of adrenaline is to prepare the muscles, when we are faced with ‘danger’, for fight or flight, so the neck and shoulders become tensed and tightened, ready to respond in an instant.
However most of our modern day problems are not easily solved by fighting or run away, much as we might wish to do either of those things. As a result, the muscle tension is not allowed a natural release, so the brain thinks we are still under threat and reinforces the message to the muscles, which remain in their state of semi readiness for much longer than they were designed to. We then go on to experience something similar to the stiffness and discomfort caused by excessive exercise, due to the buildup of muscle wastes.
If the fight or flight response is repeated often enough, the body’s sense of being on red alert will impact on the circulation, which may become impaired, muscle stiffness increases and the joints of the neck and shoulders can lose mobility. This tends to happen over time and, unless we use the full range of movements in these joints regularly, it may come as a sudden and unpleasant surprise to find that we can’t look over our shoulder to check that tricky reverse parking manoeuvre.
Because the neck and shoulder area is so susceptible to the effects of mental as well as physical stress, we can use the techniques that work with either through the mind or the body to relieve discomfort. If tension in the body is eased through stretching exercises, massages or other types of ‘hands on’ manipulations, the brain may respond to the physical relaxation by calling off the state of alert.
Alternatively, forms of mental relaxation such as meditation can soothe brain activity, calming the fight or flight response and allowing the muscles to revert to their normal relaxed condition. Even better is a combination of the 2 approaches. An aromatic bath for example combines mental and physical relaxation to soothe neck and shoulder tension. The heat of the water improves circulation and increases penetration of essential oils that can have powerful relaxing and anti-depressant effects.