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How to Relieve Shoulder Tension: Tips, Tools and More

We only really think about our shoulders when we want to relieve shoulder tension. 

Being on the back of our body and out of our natural field of vision, it’s easy not to see the stress we put our tight shoulders under in our day-to-day lives.

It seems like today more than ever, we have to shoulder what the world throws at us. I can’t tell you how to take every metaphorical weight off your shoulders, but I can help with how to relieve shoulder tension and knead out those shoulder tension knots that often lead to tension headaches.

How unwanted tech neck brings us down

It’s become a generally accepted norm that we sit at our desks in awkward positions. 

Sometimes for a whole day but even short periods of typing have been linked to shoulder tension. If you’re reading this slouched over a laptop or looking down on your phone on your commute then more than likely you’re taking part in a tech neck pandemic that leaves shoulder muscles tight and unhappy.

However, it’s not just tech that’s got us hunched over with tight shoulders. Driving, sleeping, or gym injuries all play their part in creating shoulder tension knots.

Why don’t we pay better attention to our shoulders?

When’s the last time you actually checked out your shoulders? Maybe it was when you tried on that backless dress for a night out. (If you went with it, good for you). But perhaps you preferred a shirt or jacket and kept your shoulders out of the spotlight and hidden away.

Whether you’re showcasing your shoulders or not, let’s take a moment to appreciate the work that this group of muscles is doing. You wouldn’t be able to hold up your head without them, after all. We’re constantly using them in one way or another, and that’s why we need to relieve shoulder tension often as a matter of importance.

The anatomy of our shoulders

Understanding is the best way that we can do something about how to relieve shoulder pain. Let’s start with simply familiarizing ourselves with the muscles in this part of our body. 

Then let’s go to the top of your neck - those muscles at the base of your skull. Meet the suboccipitals (your new favorite word to impress your friends and family with) and the upper trapezius (or “upper traps” for short) muscles.

They’re constantly at work holding up your head, and even more so when you’re in forward head posture when looking at your devices.

These muscles are ultimately connected to your shoulders and they work together to stabilize your vision by holding your eyes level and your head up. If you’re looking to relieve shoulder tension, it’s worth starting here and these muscles are looking for some treatment too.

Now, relief from tense or tight shoulders isn’t as simple as booking yourself in for that massage that you’ve been promising yourself for the last few months. Even though that’s going to give you some temporary relief it’s not actually going to be as long-lasting as you want it to be. That’s not how to relieve shoulder tension on a permanent basis.

To actually relieve shoulder tension, really to relieve tension anywhere, physiotherapists are always going to recommend precise, enduring pressure on the knotted area. Now as these muscles are out of reach, a PT designed this tool for use to relieve shoulder tension and it’s pretty nifty. This is the NUCKLE.

How to get muscle release with the NUCKLE

Here you can see how the NUCKLE is able to dig in and focus on the tight area at the back of the neck; that tight area if your suboccipitals are in need of some TLC.

There are a number of great things about this exercise. Lying back, you’re able to use your body weight to apply pressure in an area you’d never be able to reach and apply enough pressure with your fingers alone. Even a ball doesn’t do the trick because it won’t apply precise pressure to these smaller muscles due to its rounded shape.

The other great benefit is that this physiotherapy equipment is yours whenever you need it. If it’s been a particularly hunched-over-the-laptop day in the office meeting that deadline (you know the one- it was brought forward last minute even though you told your boss it would require working overtime), then you’ve got the NUCKLE ready to go back at home without having to book a physiotherapist appointment on demand.

Just a thought

Orrrrrr you could take it to your office and lie on the floor there, depending on your office culture. And if you’re the one who sets the culture in your office, you may want to consider purchasing a couple as a targeted alternative/addition to stress balls (particularly if you’re the one breaking the bad news about shortening that deadline). A happy office is an office free of shoulder tension knots, after all.

Final tips before you go

Imagine a trapezoid. That’s the shape of your trap muscles in your shoulders. That’s how it got its name. The trapezius muscles are large muscles that help to move and rotate your neck, and lift your head and skull (which is always heavier than you think it is because of bone density). ALSO, they help shrug your shoulders up and assist with lifting your arms in front of you or to your sides, with whatever target weight your personal trainer recommended today.

So it’s a powerful muscle, but with so many uses it’s prone to collecting muscle knots and trigger points.

Why do I even get shoulder knots?

It’s a good question. Muscles are quite simple when it comes to it. Unable to think for themselves, they are tools puppeted by your brain, who is managing the whole movement/motion operation.

Muscles are supposed to be in either a contracted or a loose state. Consider contracted to mean “being turned on” and loose to be “turned off”. When you’re making your personal trainer proud lifting that weight above your head, you’re contracting muscles in your shoulder to get power into them. You hold for 3 seconds and then you put the weight down in a controlled way and hope she’s not going to ask you to do it again.

But once you’re resting and take a moment to sit down, it gets “switched off” again. It’s loose. Only, if you’re hunched over getting your breath back then the muscle is in limbo about whether it’s needed or not. Certain fibres get so used to being in an in-use, contracted state that they just stay there. That’s a muscle knot. If your partner is giving you a massage, your muscles are supposed to feel relaxed and loose and switched off. A knot is easy enough to locate because some of the muscle fibers refuse to stop being switched off. They never heard the signal and just stayed at work, even when it wasn’t necessary.

Other negative effects caused by muscle knots

Most of us have shoulder tension knots, and fixing them is not only going to ease discomfort but also give us a greater range of movement in those muscles, the muscles surrounding them, and our joints. Knots also inhibit circulation and pull on surrounding structures, like the spine. These knots are what can lead to migraines and tension headaches.

Try the NUCKLE on your shoulders, too.

It’s basically the same principle as using the NUCKLE on your neck in the base of your skull, but this time, given the position of the muscles, you won’t be able to use your own bodyweight in quite as effective a way.

That’s when you enlist the help of a handy sofa/chair leg (or a door jamb) to push up against.

Like the previous NUCKLE exercise, you have to sustain the pressure and you may get a “hurts so good” feeling while your brain works out what’s going on. Hold it for just over a minute in the right area and you should start to feel the positive effects of kneading out the knots almost immediately.

Ongoing neck and shoulder care for less tension

After locating and eliminating those pesky shoulder knots, it’s mostly about avoiding the habits that are going to build back new ones. The NUCKLE will always be there again for whenever you need it, but once you’re back to having healthy shoulders then how to relieve shoulder tension is mostly about preventing the behaviours that lead to it in the first place.

Stretches and massages can help your body learn how to relax your shoulders, even though those stretches can’t resolve muscle knots.

Both stretches and massages are encouraging circulation in the relevant areas, and your shoulders are always going to appreciate a healthy blood flow to transport the nutrients needed to maintain the protein-heavy makeup of muscle fibres, as well as clearing out the excess lactic acid created through anaerobic respiration when you were exercising.

Arm yourself with a working knowledge of which ones fit in with your lifestyle and apply them when necessary. Good luck!

FAQs on relieving shoulder tightness

What causes shoulder tension? 

Lifestyle choices that encourage bringing the shoulders for sustained periods of time. Activities like typing and scrolling through Instagram are going to pull our shoulders forwards and result in not giving our shoulders enough downtime. When a muscle believes it should be in constant use, the signal to turn it off gets misheard and that leaves a tightness in an otherwise relaxed muscle. That tightness is a muscle knot.

What are tension knots?

Tightened, contracting muscles that don’t need to be contracted. A muscle should either be completely relaxed and switched off (which allows it to stretch) or turned on, when you’re using it for movement or motion. A tension knot is a group of fibres in your muscle that are still turned on even when the rest of the muscle is turned off, which compromises the muscles ability to do anything, adds pressure to the area and surrounding muscles, reduces circulation and makes pinch points more likely because of your reduced range of movement.

How do I relieve tension knots?

Sustained (30-90 seconds), targeted pressure is the best way to relieve muscle knots or trigger points. Whether with a physical therapist or a specific tool, holding pressure in either of these two ways in the exact area of tightness is going to get the signal through that the muscle should relax entirely rather than holding onto tension in certain areas. Stretches and massages will also help in a more temporary and preventative way, but to relieve shoulder tension knots that you’ve already amassed, you need to apply direct, prolonged pressure.

By Christine Koth . Thu Jan 13

Author Bio

Uncovering the cause of your pain is my mission. As a bestselling author and holistic physical therapist with decades of experience, I have helped countless people, just like you, recover from long-standing issues. I've discovered a major cause of pain hidden in the hip and this has lead to my "Iliacus Queen" and hip expert status. I'm here to help you discover causes like this. It doesn't have to be complicated to live a pain-free life. We can do this. I look forward to supporting you on your healing journey.