Neck Or Shoulder Pain? How To (Safely) Give Yourself A Massage

Many of us are working from home, hunched over our laptops. Here's how to ease it a little.
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Hunched away at our makeshift desks with limited movement, it’s unsurprising many of us have neck and shoulder pain – not to mention headaches – as a result of our shift to a more static, lockdown lifestyle.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. While posture can play some part in the pain you might experience, it’s the lack of movement that’s the problem, says Claire Small, clinical director and physiotherapist at Pure Sports Medicine.

The trick to preventing neck, shoulder and back pain, she says, is to avoid holding yourself in one position for a long period of time – we need to move more. This prevents future pain, but for lots of us who are five or six weeks into working from home, the aches and pains are already alive and kicking.

So what can you do about it – and is an at-home massage a good idea?

First, you’ve got to stretch it out

We should stretch little and often throughout the day, rather than in one go. Karen Howell, managing director and massage therapist at Team Actuate, recommends setting a reminder every 30 minutes, where you sit up straight and stretch out your neck and shoulder muscles, or lie on the floor with your knees bent to straighten out the spine.

Simple neck stretches and shoulder rolls will ease any tension you might have built up, adds Sadie Goodson, founder of Fix Up Feel Good. Neck exercises are beneficial for those getting tension headaches, which can come from the upper joints in the neck.

“Pain is a really good guide,” says Small. If you start to get pain in a certain area it’s probably because blood flow to that area is reduced. “Scan your body and be aware: am I carrying tension? Am I feeling any tension in particular?”

Whatever stretches you do, make sure you do them slowly and don’t force anything – you don’t want to end up doing more damage.

What about self-massage?

There’s nothing wrong with massaging yourself, or someone you live with, during lockdown – it increases circulation to the muscles and soft tissue. Ideally though, these massages should be coupled with stretches and movement exercises, says Small. A three-pronged approach.

Remember: avoid putting pressure on any area that is painful – if you’re experiencing pain, you might want to seek an online appointment with a physio or massage therapist.

If you live alone, use a tennis ball (or a similar-sized ball) and place it between your spine and shoulder blade – never directly on your spine. Then, lean up against a wall and roll the ball up and down that area. You can also do this along your lower back area.

“Be careful how much pressure you use and how long you use it for,” warns Howell, who’s worked as a massage therapist for more than 20 years. “Overuse or incorrect use can irritate already sore muscles, so go easy to start with.”

There are other things you can use. Try a foam roller – if you don’t have one, make one by wrapping a rolling pin in a towel and fastening it with elastic bands or string. Renata Nunes, a physiotherapist and massage therapist, also suggests grabbing hold of a rolling pin, clean toothbrush or body brush and gently stroking the neck muscles with it downwards towards the shoulders. Press softly and do as often as required.

A towel can work, too. “Take a small-medium towel and roll it into a long sausage,” she says. “Hold it at each end so that it cradles the base of your head, top of your neck, and relax your head into the towel. Keep the weight of your head in the towel. Twist the towel from side to side to rock the head.”

You can also try without props and use your hands to massage your back. Lie down, make fists with your thumb outside the fist, and place them either side of your spine. Move around on them to relieve any tension.

Can you massage someone else?

The biggest mistake people make when doing a home massage on someone else is pressing too firmly and deeply, says Nunes. You have to be careful, as there are ways to hurt someone if you go straight in with a full deep-tissue massage with no prior experience.

However, says Goodson, simple “flushing motions” – keeping the touch light and using the flat of the hands – won’t damage. Use oil or lotion so you’re creating a glide on the skin and stick to larger surface areas such as the legs and back.

While a lot of people might be tempted to massage their friend or partner on a bed, Howell advises against it. “A bed can be too soft and bend the recipient’s spine,” she says. “It can also twist the neck and could be too low for the person giving the massage and possibly strain their back, too.” Not ideal.

Howell suggests sitting the other person in a straight-backed chair. “Make sure their head is in alignment with the spine,” she says. “You can give a short massage through clothing if the clothing is soft – cotton-based, not nylon or anything thick or scratchy – or use a light oil or cream on bare skin.”

Use gentle squeezing and rubbing motions to increase blood flow upwards into tight muscles. But don’t massage on the bone or spine. “To release upper body tension, start from between the shoulder blades using the thumbs in upwards circular motions and work your way up into the neck and shoulders,” says Howell.

Squeeze either side of the spine in the neck with the thumb and fingers right up into the base of the skull. You may feel tight muscles right next to the cervical spine, these can refer to pain behind the eyes or up into the temples.

“Releasing these areas can get rid of tension headaches.”

It’s worth noting that you shouldn’t self-massage, or massage someone else, if there are blisters, wounds, skin infections, bruises, any acute infection, and/or high temperature. People with a history of thrombosis, cancer and pregnant women should consult a professional first.

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