Neck and shoulder muscles often carry a lot of tension. This tension is a recurring or persistent problem for many people, causing discomfort and limited movement in the affected areas. Certain actions can reduce neck and shoulder tension and potentially eliminate the underlying cause. Heat, stretching, stress management techniques, posture and ergonomic training can help reduce neck and shoulder muscle tension. Medical treatment may be needed in some cases.
Heat and Stretching
Heat applied to tight muscles increases blood flow to the area, promoting relaxation. Heat can be applied in different ways, such as a hot shower, heating pad, microwavable heat pack or hot-water bottle. In general, heat should be applied for 15 to 20 minutes at a time. Heat followed by gentle stretching will temporarily decrease tension in the neck and shoulder muscles. These muscles can be stretched by tipping your head to the side, bringing your ear toward your shoulder opposite the tense muscles. Stretches are usually held for 20 to 30 seconds and repeated 2 or 3 times. Stretches are often done several times throughout the day. Consult a healthcare professional for specific stretches to decrease your muscle tension.
Posture and Ergonomics
Many people spend much of the day sitting in front of a computer or bent over a desk. These positions increase the risk for neck and shoulder muscle tension. Proper posture and ergonomics -- aligning the body with equipment to minimize strain on the body -- may reduce muscle tension in these areas. Although workstations and home computer areas vary, general principles can be applied to improve posture and ergonomics. A small, rolled towel placed behind the lower back or a lumbar support pillow helps you sit up straight. The computer screen should be aligned straight in front of you, just below eye level. Shoulders should be relaxed. Do not hunch forward as this increases muscle tension. With your elbows bent to approximately 90 degrees, your keyboard should be at a height that allows your wrists to remain straight -- without resting on a surface -- as you type. Hips and knees should be bent to approximately 90 degrees with your feet resting flat on the floor or a footstool.
Stress can cause tension in your neck and shoulder muscles. According to a study published in October 2012 in the journal "Physical Therapy," mentally taxing tasks can increase tension in the trapezius muscles -- those that run along the top of your shoulders and back of your neck. Stress reduction techniques may decrease tension in these muscles. Techniques may include deep breathing, guided imagery, listening to calming music, or taking a short break to allow your mind and muscles to relax. Effective stress management techniques vary among individuals. Experiment with different methods to determine which techniques work best for you. Additional stress management instruction may be provided by a psychologist or counselor.
Neck and shoulder muscle tension may interfere with your daily activities due to pain or limited mobility. A physical therapist can provide additional interventions -- such as ultrasound, electrical stimulation, dry needling, deep tissue massage and range of motion exercises -- to help reduce this tension. The therapist might also be able to help determine the underlying cause of the tension. In severe cases, a doctor may inject pain-relieving medication directly into the muscle.
Warnings and Precautions
See your doctor if your neck and shoulder tension does not improve, interferes with your daily activities or suddenly gets worse. Call your doctor right away if you experience numbness, tingling or weakness in your arms or hands.
Reviewed by: Tina M. St. John, M.D.