In a world where we never remember to turn off notifications and the news channels take pride in a 24-hour cycle of uninterrupted updates, we can find it very hard to switch off, breathe properly, and reset our minds.
It should be no surprise, then, that our shoulders feel the same way.
Knots in the levator scapula (a muscle that allows our shoulders to shrug) form when they don’t properly turn off either. Worst of all, knots we thought we’d gotten rid of have a nasty habit of coming back when we least wanted it.
You see, muscles just do the work that our brains ask them to do. Their functions are quite binary. Switch them on (contract the muscle) and it allows motion and movement of the bones that they’re attached to. Then, when you don’t need movement in that area anymore, switch them back off again (loosen the muscle) and motion will only happen through external forces (usually gravity).
No (shoulder) muscle is an island
Our neck, shoulder, back, and hip muscles are lined up in a complex order to allow movement in all the different angles that human beings can shape themselves into. When you think about the range of movement we have compared to any machine, it’s quite remarkable how we’re still so far ahead. You can thank your muscles and joints for that one.
But when your shoulder muscles are tight, that range of motion is limited. So knowing how to give a good shoulder massage and having the best shoulder massage techniques suddenly become a hot commodity.
But any complex system comes with unwanted complications and muscle knots are not part of the plan when it comes to motion. They add unwanted pressure to delicate areas (for example, the base of your skull where your brain stem lives) and restrict the range of motion in your muscles and joints (like reaching overhead with your shoulder and arm). They can obstruct clean circulation and can cause discomfort.
What is a shoulder muscle knot?
Shoulder muscle knots are parts of the muscle that didn’t hear the signal to stop working. These fibers have remained “switched on.” And, well, that’s because they assumed that (given how much they were in use), they’re hardly worth powering down for a rest.
Perhaps you can relate if you find it difficult to take time in your day for a moment for yourself. You feel like you have the weight of the world on your shoulders and you don’t want to fall behind by slowing down.
Your muscles are just doing the same thing. And this often causes shoulder tightness and pain that leads to issues in other parts of your body.
Shoulder massage vs shoulder stretches
So, how do we find time for ourselves and time to power down our overworked and underpaid muscles?
How often should you get a massage?
Is a shoulder massage better than stretching?
Well, stretching is going to be a good place to start - and should be a part of your shoulder pain prevention routine.
Stretching aids circulation and tries to break the rut of a muscle being stuck all in one place. It also gives it a break. A common misconception that many of us have is that stretching is using the muscles when actually it’s the opposite.
Contracted muscles don’t stretch. And that is why we recommend a gentle self-shoulder massage and muscle release if the shoulder tightness and pain have already started.
We do have some handy exercises and stretches for tight shoulders, but for a stronger dose of lasting shoulder pain relief, we should think about a more hands-on approach.
The benefits of a shoulder massage
Good for body, mind, and human connectivity (if you make it a social activity). Our bodies love touch, even though we are sometimes a little too shy to admit it. And a shoulder massage - coupled with the best shoulder massage techniques - is going to go deep into those overworked muscles to knead out those nasty knots.
Let’s say you’ve taken a moment for yourself and are looking for some shoulder massage relief. With the shoulders and neck being on your back and out of our field of vision, this can be a little tricky to get into. It also doesn’t help that our range of movement for our arms and hands is much more limited here.
How to give a good shoulder massage to yourself
Thankfully, we can all reach over our opposite shoulders to find the muscle on the top of the shoulder (called the upper trapezius). And that means we can all learn how to give a good shoulder massage that relieves shoulder tension and pain.
So let’s get started:
- Take whichever one of your fingers (or a combo of 2) that feels strongest - often your middle and pointer finger - and move down the top inside corner of your shoulder blade.
- Work in small circles on the muscle at the top of your shoulder (fancy name: levator scapulae).
- Take note of any knots that have formed, and put concentrated pressure on those specific areas for up to one minute.
- Mindfully inhale and exhale throughout the shoulder massage.
The aim is to relax and manually override any tightness that’s accumulated from day-to-day activities, sports, injuries, and more.
Middle finger to the world: massaging your neck
The best shoulder massage doesn’t stop at the upper traps and levator scapulae muscles. Those same fingers can also work their way up the sides of the neck and get near the base of your skull to work on your suboccipitals.
The suboccipitals are the small muscles that extend from the base of your skull to the top of your neck (attaching to the C1-C2 vertebra in your cervical spine). And they’re probably going to feel tense if you haven’t been stretching recently, but they’re also potentially the cause of those tension headaches that have been ruining your afternoons.
Your secret weapon: a lacrosse ball in your handbag for your middle back
If you’re not a handbag-toting human, maybe this is your backpack, briefcase, suitcase, or a drawer in your desk at work (or all of the above).
The answer: a body massage aid. A small, firm ball of any description - like a lacrosse ball - allows you to roll over a muscle that’s hard to reach for yourself. They are perfect to help you get to the muscles in your middle back in between your shoulder blades (called the rhomboids).
It’s a sigh of relief in the middle of a stressful day and may even literally do away with that pain in your mid-back. Here’s what to do:
- Stand against a sturdy wall or door.
- Using the weight of your body against the hard surface, hold the ball against your back and lean toward the wall.
- Roll your body over the ball. Stay between your shoulder blades, following the pattern of your muscles.
- Again, stop at areas that have knots, breathing through any discomfort (but never pain - pain means STOP), with deep, meaningful breaths.
- Avoid putting pressure directly on major joints, like directly on your spine.
If you’ve ever tried this you’ll know how good it feels. If you haven't, maybe it’s time you made room in your bag for one.
Other muscle release tools for shoulder tightness
While the lacrosse ball (or tennis ball) can help reach some areas, it won’t effectively hit all of the areas to give you the best relief possible. This is because a ball is too large and too round to hit some of these tinier muscles with enough precision and direct pressure.
Your own fingers may give you a little more precision and directness, but the angles and positions at which you are pressing on yourself make it harder to achieve enough pressure at the best angles and for a long enough period of time for it to truly be effective. Some spots may even be unreachable with your own fingers, and that’s where the help of a massage therapist comes into play.
A newer muscle release tool for tight shoulders that we love is called the NUCKLE. It has 3 sets of tips at different widths and angles, allowing you to apply precise pressure to many areas around your head, neck, and shoulders. Anatomically designed to fit the shapes of these smaller and harder-to-reach muscles, the NUCKLE provides an amazing release of tension and tightness in your upper body.
Don’t stop there: treat the whole body
We’re focused on the neck and shoulder massage, but it’s also really important to remember that the body doesn’t work in isolation.
If you recall the song, “the hip bone’s connected to the…” – don’t worry, I won’t sing to you. But how that relates to this idea of muscle tension is that tightness in one area of the body can affect how other areas of the body move and hold tension as well.
We can call this referral pain or a movement pattern compensation, where misalignment or tension in your shoulders can impact your lower body. Misalignments in your hips and pelvis (aka the center and “core” of our body) can then cause hip pain when standing up, hip pain when sitting down, hip pain when running, and more.
That’s why my book Tight Hip Twisted Core begins with a very thorough explanation of two very underappreciated muscles: the Iliacus (ill-ee-yak-us) and the iliopsoas (ill-ee-o-so-as) on the inside of the hips.
You’ll want to take care of these muscles, too because they may be an overlooked part of what’s contributing to shoulder pain or other tension in your upper body.
Massage is a great tool, but it’s not the only one
It is key to remember that physiotherapy goes beyond just a shoulder massage.
I’m here to tell you that a massage feels good and is recommended for general wellness. But a full and complete muscle release in those tight areas is the only surefire way to actually rid yourself of longstanding shoulder knots and pain.
The good news is that there are therapist-designed tools that you can use at home to apply that kind of pressure on demand.
Many of my patients and our customers feel tremendous relief after just one or two sessions with the Hip Hook, a hip flexor release tool I created to release the iliacus and psoas, and the NUCKLE, a tool I designed to offer relief for aching head, neck and shoulder pain.
With easy-to-follow instructions, you will place the respective muscle release tool on the exact area(s) you need to release. And, instead of using your fingers (like with the shoulder massage), you’ll use your own bodyweight to add pressure for 30-90 seconds or more.
There are times when you will still need to see a physical therapist (for example, with athletes and/or sports injuries), but you can certainly use these tools in conjunction with your in-person treatment.
However, these are the best tools for finding the release and relief you need for a better quality of life. Plus, the beauty of these tools is that you can literally take them anywhere (much like that lacrosse ball you just added to your Amazon cart).
More massage tips and neglected massage-ready areas
You’ve probably heard of the pec (or pec major) muscle. That’s a large muscle that spans either side of your chest and attaches near the shoulder. A smaller, and potentially more important, chest muscle that you might not have heard of is the pec minor.
The pec minor muscle is not to be overlooked during your self-massage and muscle release practice. Here’s why.
The pec minor, although situated on your chest, is the muscle that brings your entire shoulder forward. It’s the muscle that you are constantly using as you round your shoulders forward while typing on your computer or phone.
Think of all the other activities that you do with your hands out in front of you. Your pec minor will be playing a not-so-minor part in allowing that to happen, too.
This muscle doesn’t complain quite as loudly as others, but it also gets tight and it also gets knotted. It can be responsible for referring pain to other places and restricting movement that leads to trigger points in your rotator cuff (on the back of the shoulder).
Fortunately, being on the front of the body, this is a muscle that you can work on with your own two hands. Intentional, direct pressure, held for 30-90 seconds (or longer) until you feel the muscle release, will provide the longest-lasting results.
Take a couple of fingers and try it now to see what I’m talking about. Or for the ultimate pec minor muscle release, use the NUCKLE. Just remember to unclench those shoulders first and relax.
Partner-assisted shoulder massage
Getting or giving a massage to someone else is also a great way to relax your shoulders and reach those areas you can’t yourself.
But there’s always that underlying thought that whoever gets the shoulder massage first is missing out. Maybe because your massage will be so relaxing they’ll fall asleep - or because you’ll be out of free time.
So my first tip is a practical one, vocalize that and switch it up.
“You massage my back and I’ll massage yours - but not always in that order.”
Communication is key
Your partner can help get to places you and the lacrosse ball may be struggling with. But, as I shared above, they can’t read your mind.
Like in any team, good communication is going to be the key to success. When you’re giving a shoulder massage, explore the area gently and search for knots. Muscles should feel like a steak (it is just meat after all) and shouldn’t have tension while relaxing.
It’s important that when you find a knot, that you also consider the area immediately around it too. But you’re not a therapist, so don’t burden yourself with the responsibility of fixing your partner’s shoulder tension or neck pain completely. You’re just providing some positive relief and immediate relaxation.
So when the person you’re massaging says higher, go higher and check in with them. “Is that good?”, “like that?”, and “how does it feel there?” These are all simple clear questions you should be using constantly to build up a map of the areas you should be targeting in your shoulder massage.
The other piece of advice to get good shoulder massage relief is to give a good shoulder massage to others.
If you can teach these good communication habits to a friend or partner you’re helping out, it becomes a ripple effect. They use them on you, and you get a better shoulder massage out of it, too.
And if they don’t listen, find a partner who’s willing to - or skip right back up to the top of this article and enjoy a self-massage as your self-care routine.
There’s no time in this world for a massage partner who’s an added pain in the neck.
Come at the neck from a new angle
One more quick tip about massaging the neck of your partner or yourself is to consider meeting the muscles from a different angle.
Instead of having them on their front, put your partner on their back. Then, stand on the other side of them. If you’re doing this on a bed, then consider switching things around a bit because you need to be standing where your headboard would normally be.
The benefit of this position is that you can take the weight of the skull into your hands while you massage the neck muscles that are finally getting the break they’ve been asking for. (You can also gift them a neck massage tool that takes the weight off).
If you’re doing a self-massage, experiment with doing it both standing and sitting. Move the angle of the elbow of the arm you are massaging with for different sensations.
Remember the goal: relaxation
It’s worth repeating.
A shoulder massage is not physiotherapy, per se. It’s just a part of it, albeit a very enjoyable one.
Massage is also a handy tool physiotherapists use to relax muscles. But your tense and tired muscles may need next-level treatment if they are repeatedly sore or causing pain in other areas of your body.
That’s when you should consider tools like the Hip Hook or the NUCKLE. While you’re waiting for yours to be delivered, a fun, relaxing shoulder massage is going to put your mind and shoulders at ease for the day, and you’ll be glad you found the time to do it.
Frequently asked questions about shoulder massages
What is a shoulder and neck massage?
Attention to sore muscles through gentle circular motions of your fingers or thumbs or another tool. Direct, prolonged pressure works best for muscle knots. The goal is to help you, your tight shoulders, and your neck relax after a long day hunched over your devices.
Can you give yourself a shoulder massage?
Absolutely yes! You won’t be able to completely switch off like you can in the spa, but you can give your tense shoulder muscles some much-needed relief. For your pec minor go right ahead because it’s on the front of your body (just under the collar bone). For harder-to-reach places, you’ll need an angled massage tool and a flat surface like a wall or a floor.
How often can I give myself a shoulder massage?
You’re in control, so if you want to call in that long-overdue me time then go right ahead. A gentle self-massage right before bed is a nightly routine worth having. However, if your shoulders and neck are giving you consistent pain then this is a job for specialist tools like the NUCKLE, or a visit to your local physiotherapist.