My clients often ask me how to treat chronic tightness and pain, outside of the treatment room. The three most common issues my clients complain of are neck, shoulder and lower back pain. These issues can have many different causes, from the type of work someone does, their choice of fitness or sports (recreational or professional), to accidents or injuries from their past, etc. All of these more than likely have one thing in common – they are exasperated by a poor sleep routine. Helping to correct a person’s sleep pattern is a journey all on its own, and one I’d recommend discussing with your doctor. But something you can do to overcome sleep issues on your own is how we can start our day off with a more relaxed and healthier sense of well-being with a simple sunrise routine.
My morning routine has more or less been the same for many years. Why? Because it works for me. There came a point in my young adult life where I would frequently wake up with a stiff neck, and later it would develop into something more painful where I couldn’t even turn my head. Stress, in all its forms, plays a huge role in how healthy our bodies are, and that translates directly to our muscles. For me, the stresses of work and school were throwing my body out of balance, not unlike many of you balancing work, family and other obligations. After realizing that I needed to change something, I started making small, easy changes immediately after I woke up. This led to dramatic and positive change in my life.
Directly after waking up
Right when my eyes open in the morning, I begin stretching my neck. It’s important to keep in mind that a lot of us will have stiff muscles in the morning, so these stretches need to be done slowly to avoid straining anything.
I start by pushing my shoulders down and touching one ear to the same side shoulder to stretch the opposite side of my neck, then switch. After that, I rotate my neck to one side as far as my range of motion will allow me, then switch. Then, before getting out of bed, I get into Child’s Pose to help stretch out my back and shoulders. I hold each stretch for a minimum of 15 seconds, but I try to shoot for around 30 seconds before releasing the stretch.
These are all easy and short stretches that will kick start your day. Next we will go over some mobility and stretching tips that I used to transform my life for the better.
Eager to be pain free?
First, we need to discuss mobility, as well as things that may contribute to limited range of motion (ROM) and pain. For most of us, we work in environments that require us to be sitting at computers, also, while driving or traveling. This tightens our pectoral muscles and lengthens our upper back muscles, where most of us “carry our tension”. This tension, stacked on top of bad sleeping habits (side sleeping in particular) leads to an even more closed upper chest, which leads to neck and shoulder pain. Outside of receiving massage and chiropractic care, self-care through mobility tools and stretching is the best thing you can do to combat this type of tightness and pain.
When I start this conversation with my clients, I’m often asked the question: What are mobility tools and how can they help me? Mobility tools are items that target the fascia, which is a complex system of connective tissue that surrounds all of the muscles in our body. We have more than 600 muscles in our bodies, and fascia is connected to all of them, so if one thing is out of balance chances are it’s affecting something else in our body. A few common mobility tools include tennis/ lacrosse balls and foam rollers. Less common but extremely effective mobility tools are yoga wheels, barbells and kettlebells. All of these, if used properly, can greatly increase range of motion and allow up to an 80% better stretch than if not used at all.
One of my favorite mobility tools is a trigger-point ball, because it is in my opinion the most versatile and easily transportable tool you can find. You can also use a lacrosse ball, if you have one of those lying around although both can be found at almost any sporting goods store, and are small, dense, rubber balls that can be held and used to provide pressure to the muscle. The density of these balls are what makes them amazing to penetrate deep into the muscle and target smaller and more specific areas, but they still have some give, allowing you to control the intensity.
How to use a trigger-point ball? First, you will want to find the areas of tension as well as tightness in your body. For the purpose of this blog, we will cover the upper chest and upper back as well as low back. By this point, you’ve already stretched your neck and back a bit, and now it’s time to dive into the body a little deeper and release some tension.
Upper Chest/ Back Tension Release Instructions
You’ll need to find a solid flat surface such as a wall if you’re less experienced, or the floor for more intensity. Locate the boniest part of the front of your shoulder, then move about two inches diagonally toward your sternum, this is where you will place the lacrosse ball. Find your spot on the wall or the floor and place the ball at the desired spot, then press into the surface, applying as much pressure as is tolerable. You should feel a good deal of pressure and possibly even referral pain going to a different part of your body, such as your shoulder, neck or head. On a pain scale of 1-10, the pain should never exceed a 7. You will sit in this position for as long as it takes for the pain to dissipate, but I recommend a range of 30 seconds up to about three minutes. While you’re in this position, your arm should be at your side with your palm facing the wall or floor. Taking another step forward, you can begin to bring your straightened arm up and out until you hit your maximum ROM. Once you have finished one side, go into your stretch which will require a doorway or some sort of column. With your arm at 90 degrees from your body and your forearm at 90 degrees from the rest of your arm, you’ll step into the doorway and apply a stretch to your pecs. To make the stretch more intense, you can turn your body away from the side that is being stretched.
This routine unlocks your upper chest to help alleviate tightness, which also helps bring your shoulders back and engages your upper back muscles to combat the tension that leads to pain. If you’re a side sleeper, you will want to concentrate more on the side in which you sleep on as that will be the tighter side.
If you have a tried-and-true morning routine that helps you loosen tight muscles or alleviate pain, share it with me!