Stress is something else that can cause UBNP. When you experience stress (mental, emotional or physical), the muscles contract; this is one of many physiological responses to stress hormones rising. Very often we contract the muscles of the neck, chest and upper back as if we are bracing ourselves for something: the shoulders raise, tensing the trapezius muscles (the muscles that help us shrug), they may come forward as the pectoral (chest) muscles contract and we might take shallower chest breaths (instead of diaphragmatic or abdominal breaths), which will cause tension in the chest, upper back and neck.
From a Chinese Medicine perspective, stress affects the Liver, which is a Yin organ. It affects the smooth flow of Qi, or energy, in the body. When it doesn't flow smoothly, it stagnates, causing tension and pain. It is similar to the pressure that builds when water is trying to pass through a clogged pipe. The Liver's Yang organ pair is the Gallbladder; when the Liver is stressed, you often see Gallbladder channel pain: headaches on the sides of the head, pain down the sides of the neck into the trapezius muscles, chest tightness, hip tightness, pain down the sides of the legs or knees, IT band (Illiotibial band) pain, etc. The Gallbladder channel starts at the outer eyes, runs over the sides of the head, around the ears and down the sides of the body to the 4th toe. Click here to see the Gallbladder channel.
The first step toward stopping all sorts of UBNP, is to look at your posture. The way you hold yourself and the way you move during your day plays a big part in how your body feels. You may require the assistance of a yoga instructor, physical therapist or someone with a trained eye to see what your specific postural imbalances might be. If your pain is relatively new, adjusting your posture might be enough to get rid of the pain. If it is chronic, you might need some expert help.
One great tip toward keeping you on top of your posture is for the car. Sit upright in the driver's seat with your head back against the head rest. In that position, adjust your rear-view mirror so you can see behind you properly. While you are driving, if you can't see behind you in the rear-view mirror, that is a reminder to sit up straight again.
When you are sitting at your desk working on the computer, make sure that your monitor is at eye level. Sit toward the front of your chair so that your back is not leaning and you can easily place your feet on the ground (knees a little lower than your hips). If you are "vertically challenged" like I am, sometimes a small stool under your feet can help you reach the floor; if your are "vertically blessed" just make sure your chair is high enough to place your hips higher than your knees. Make sure your shoulders are over your hips and your head is over your shoulders. Check in with yourself periodically and make sure you are not shrugging or sinking in your chest. Once an hour (or more often) take a break to do some shoulder and neck stretches:
- Roll your shoulders back 3-5 times then forward 3-5 times while taking some slow, deep breaths. Make the circles as big as you can, squeezing the shoulders up by your ears and then rolling them back or forward and pressing them down.
- Let your head fall toward your right shoulder (shoulders should drop toward the floor) and hold for 3 deep breaths, then repeat to the left side. While your head is to one side you can turn your chin toward your collar bone or nod your head to get other parts of your neck to stretch.
- While sitting up straight, interlace your fingers in front of your chest, then reach your knuckles forward as you pull your chest toward your back so that your upper body looks like a "C". Hold for 3-5 breaths. Then interlace your fingers behind your back and try to reach your knuckles away from your hips as you squeeze your shoulder blades together. Try to take some deep breaths and hold 3-5 breaths.
Just like with Lower Back Pain, Upper Back and Neck pain respond very well to Acupuncture, Chinese Herbal medicine, Cupping, Gua Sha and Moxibustion. These techniques help to calm stress, reduce inflammation, move the Qi and relieve pain.
Next month I will go into more detail about Cupping and Gua Sha, what they are, what they do and why they are beneficial. If you would like to receive email reminders about my new posts, click here to sign up; you can unsubscribe at any time.