A few months ago, I finally decided to do something about my back and shoulder pain. I went to physical therapy. It turns out that my pain was primarily caused by posture, more specifically, the postures I find myself in most of the day while working at my computer or looking at screens.
This two-part series is devoted to sharing what I learned from my physical therapist (thank you, Will!) about why I was feeling pain and how to avoid it in the future. Today, I am going to share a few exercises and stretches that gave me speedy relief. Next time, I will talk about ways to prevent and manage pain in the future.
This is not intended to be an exhaustive guide or diagnostic. I highly recommend seeing a physical therapist if you experience frequent neck, shoulder, or back pain.
Why am I feeling pain?
Working at a computer for long periods is not good for the body. Think about how your body feels right now as you read this. Are your shoulders hunched forward or up near your ears? Is your chin forward as you squint and concentrate on the screen? Is your back rounded or supported by your chair instead of your core? Yeah, me too.
Throughout the day, we subconsciously contort our bodies, shift our weight to one leg, and hang on our bones and ligaments instead of engaging our core to support ourselves. These are our postural habits. Similarly, we build ways of moving, often favoring one side of our body or certain muscles to accomplish tasks. These are our patterns of movement.
After years of working at a computer, my habit of rounding my shoulders forward and bringing my chin forward caused tightness in my pecs and strain around my shoulder blades and upper back. While exercise and stretching helped, it was not enough to undo the hours of strain.
Our postural habits and patterns of movement have an enormous impact on our bodies over time. The more we can break up these habits and grow more aware of the feedback from our nervous system, the better in the long run. I will go further into depth on this in part two of this series.
First, let’s talk about some stretches and exercises you can do to help your pain go away.
What can I do to find relief now?
A great place to start is incorporating some simple stretches and exercises into your day. You can do a few of these while you sit or stand at your desk.
- Prayer stretch – With your knees on the ground and your arms on a table or bed or on the ground, sit your hips back until you feel a stretch in the shoulders, arms, and back. Do 10 reps of 10-second holds.
- Pectoral stretch – Against a wall or in a doorway, position your arm at a 90-degree angle with your elbow inline with your shoulder and your hand rests against the wall. Rotate your body to feel a stretch in your pectoralis major. Hold this for 10 secs and repeat 10 times.
- Supine thoracic stretch on a foam roller – Lay on the ground on a foam roller aligned with your spine. Set a timer for three minutes. Let your body relax and your arms and shoulders melt to the ground.
- Chin tucks – Sitting or lying face up, bring your chin towards the floor like you would to make a double chin. Do these often! They are a great way to cue a posture correction.
- Thoracic book openers – Standing next to a wall, stand in a lunge position with your arms straight out along the wall. Rotate your body away from the wall to bring your outside hand straight back toward your back foot. Repeat 10 times on each side. Do these with a resistance band for more strengthening.
- Thread the needle – On hands and knees, raise one arm to the ceiling and then bring it through the space between your other arm and leg towards the floor. Feel the twist in your back. Secure a resistance band against a post and pull it through for more strength-building. Do these at least 10 times on each side and as many times as feels good throughout the day.
After a few weeks of doing these stretches and exercises consistently, my pain started to lessen. However, this doesn’t mean it is gone. If I don’t change my patterns of movement and posture, the pain will keep coming back. For more on how to think long-term and mitigate future pain and injury, stay tuned for part two of this series!