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The Reasons Why You Have Tight Shoulders (It Might Not Be What You Think!)

The Reasons Why You Have Tight Shoulders (It Might Not Be What You Think!)  

Do you have tight shoulders? 

Perhaps it’s easier to ask a room who doesn’t have tight shoulders. Chances are you’re very familiar with this feeling.

If I were to ask you what causes tight shoulders perhaps you could guess some of the obvious culprits: poor posture while doomscrolling, or hunched-over overtime typing in a half-empty workspace trying to meet the latest deadline. Injuries and surgeries take their toll and result in tight shoulders too, of course. And, let’s be honest, the fact that none of us are getting any younger doesn’t help much either

But the real problem with tight shoulders is just how many of our day to day activities tie us up in this mess. Seemingly innocuous activities are making our shoulders unhappy. 

But to make my point extra vivid, let me introduce you to two patients. They are placeholders for hundreds in their positions. You’ll probably identify with how they feel. 

When you do, raise your hand. Well, first unravel your shoulders from that rounded front position you’re probably in right now. Then raise your hand (that way, you won’t be pinching your rotator-cuff).

Tight shoulder examples: send in patient number one

Typerope Walker works in the city and her work/life balance is somewhat of a circus act. But her office is cool and bustling, they recently installed a vertical garden and an Xbox. 

She heard from someone who read it somewhere that having your laptop on a stand may reduce neck pain and she listened. Good advice, by the way, but often applied incorrectly. She also knows about the best sitting position for hip pain and back pain: arms relaxed at your side, hands low with elbows at roughly a 90-degree angle, and wrists straight. Completed with an upright back with shoulders stacked over hips and feet flat. 

But by 11 am or her 3rd conference call (whichever comes first), juggling everything that’s on her mind with everything that’s on her already-tight shoulders...well, something’s gotta give.

Her correspondence hopes that every business email finds her well, but in reality, each of these emails finds her more and more hunched into her seat as the workday marches on. What started with a slouch has ended up with double-crossed legs, a hollowed-out stomach, and a rounded back. She looks like a croissant.

And with every regression, those tight shoulders have more and more cause for concern.

Although Typerope Walker tries to find reasons to get up and walk around, it’s inevitable that she’s mostly at her desk typing. Sadly, even just an hour of typing at your desk is cause for neck pain - and it’s clinically sufficient to create and reinforce muscle knots. 

So, what causes tight shoulders here? Well, this bad posture is putting unwanted stress on muscles not cut out for this type of work. And as it is in life, when one thing doesn’t go your way, it often sets off a negative chain of events down the line. 

I’ll explain a little about what I mean.

Pestered Pec Minors

So the first thing that’s happening when we have rounded shoulders and a forward head posture is tightness through our pec minor muscles. 

Did you know your pec has a major and a minor by the way? 

Sad songs are written in minor keys, and your pec minor is more than miserable if you’re stuck playing it all day. The pec minor is the muscle on your front that rounds the shoulder forward (as opposed to the pec major - that’s the bigger one that brings your arm across your chest). The fewer rests it gets, the tighter the pec minor is going to be.

Why tight shoulders are giving you migraines

Forward head posture is causing tension to build up at the base of your skull at the back. You know, where your brainstem lives. When you’re tight through the ropey sternocleidomastoids muscles at the back of the neck, you feel tight at the entire base of the skull

If these muscles are holding the contraction for a very long period of time, it can create trigger points. These trigger points then cause what we refer to as referral pain. Discomfort in one area induces pain in a different part of the body. We also call it trigger pain. 

So, yes, when your shoulders are tight they can send pain to your brain or your back or your eyes. And we all know that’s enough to ruin your productivity for the afternoon.

How often do you get a sudden migraine or that annoying pain behind the eyes?

Be honest, are you suppressing a tension headache right now? 

Sometimes we resign ourselves to thinking that this latest headache or even migraine has just come out of nowhere, but tension headaches always have a cause, even if that cause isn’t obvious. 

So unhappy are the muscles at the base of the skull that they switch on the SCM and your scalene muscle at the front of your neck. These are the counter muscles holding your head upright.

The quickest and easiest check you can do is attend to those tight shoulders (pec minor) and adjust your posture. It could make a world of difference. Lucky for you, we’ve got an at-home solution.

But it isn’t just migraines you need to consider

The tight shoulders and forward head are also doing a number on our first patient’s levator scapula, that’s the muscle that runs from near your ear to the ridge of your shoulder. It turns on in your upper trap muscle partially from the forward head but even more so with rounded shoulders. A war on two fronts. 

Its counter muscle is in the back of your now very tight shoulders. That’s where you find your rhomboid muscles, and those muscles are turned on. If they weren’t, the aforementioned Typerope Walker would collapse on her keyboard face first.

Sometimes she’s so stressed she feels like doing that anyway. But the rhomboid and rotator cuff, tight as they are, are trying hard to keep her upright. It’s painfully hard work and needs treatment. That’s why physiotherapy is important. We can fix that.

Misalignment maladies

So misalignment is the answer to the question about what causes tight shoulders. And that’s happening as our example patient - or you sitting here reading this - types, right? 

So, “stop typing and go take a break!” you might say. However, she is getting up and visiting her colleagues at their stations. But the pain isn’t eliminated.

Look, it definitely helps. In fact, we wholeheartedly recommend regular stand-up exercises and stretches for tight shoulders throughout the day. But how effective your break depends on how you’re spending it. 

If Typerope Walker only leaves her laptop cycle to go and play Xbox with Greg from accounting then the whole forward, rounded, hunched position is repeated as she holds one of those controllers. That break isn’t a break at all as far as her tight shoulders are concerned, even if her avatar is running free and jumping around without a care in the world. 

It’s painful, and there’s never a convenient time for the pain to surface. 

She knows she has tight shoulders. She’s considering just living with it and hoping it’ll fade away. But then next thing you know she’ll be minding her own business brushing her hair, opening a jar, or fastening a bra strap - and those tight shoulders will be suddenly keen to complain about how upset they are in the only way they know how: pain.

That’s why Typerope Walker caved in and visited me. And she’s not alone.

So how are we going to treat her?

During her visit, we need to go beyond just the stretches and the massages. As we’ve mentioned, these are going to give you short-term relief from your tight shoulders or your twisted core. And we’ve got some useful ideas for great stretches and great shoulder massages that you can do yourself, but they aren’t going to solve your problem in a long-lasting way.

She’ll need to release the muscles in order to relieve that shoulder tension first.

Try the NUCKLE to release tight shoulders

I could apply pressure with my fingers once I’ve found the area, but it’s stronger (and safer for my fingers) to use a physiotherapy-designed device called the NUCKLE. It applies targeted pressure to the muscles at the base of the skull.

And it’s a safe way for you to find relief without visiting a therapist’s office.

The big advantage of the NUCKLE is that you can use it on yourself in your own time. With three different widths and three different tips, the NUCKLE applies pressure at just the right angle, using your own bodyweight to target troubled areas. 

This goes far beyond what a massage is doing for you. And it's on-demand for whenever the pain jumps in.

But back to what other day-to-day activities cause tight shoulders. Is it just typing?

Typing certainly gets bad press compared to other regular daytime activities, but it’s no worse than other movements that encourage poor posture and contorted bodies. 

Tight shoulder examples: meet patient two

He has a quizzical look about him so I call him the Detective. (He’s not actually a detective though; he drives an Uber).

But riddle me this: Why does an Uber driver also suffer from tech neck when he rarely types anything?

Well, tech neck doesn’t have to come from the office.

Driving doesn’t encourage quite as many bad habits for general posture as the office chair does, but it’s still oh so easy to end up hunched over the wheel. Therefore, for your tight shoulders and neck, it’s the same story.

The Detective knows how to avoid hip pain when driving, but when he spends long periods of time using his right arm to load maps and open apps, that takes its toll on his tight shoulders. For him, the upper trap just activated permanently.

Next time you’re in an Uber, see if that’s true for your driver. 

Heck, you could even suggest a NUCKLE for them, too. Explain it gently though or you’ll lose that 5-star rating you’ve worked so hard on.

Neck misalignments: why does his head do that?

If you’re overworking one side of your body to do right-handed activities (like using your mouse or driving) then your head may also tilt to the right. If you’re left-handed perhaps the opposite is true. 

For our second example, that means the trap muscle on his right shoulder pulls his neck toward that side.

If your head tilts to the right then your vision also isn’t equalized. So you overwork muscles in the back of your neck on the left side to compromise that vision. Now two muscles are contracted to maintain a state of semi-balance.

This isn’t a healthy alignment. 

This is a vicious, desperate game of tug of war: both sides hold the rope firmly so they’re not pulled too far by the other. But these muscles shouldn’t have been competing in the first place. Because one is much bigger than the other. The right trap should be lining up with, you guessed it, the left trap.

This strange pulley system that we work with also happens to be in a sensitive part of our bodies.

Consequences for your brain stem

As you know, the base of your neck is where your brain stem lives. Basically, the most important part of our brain is located right next to all those unhappy tight muscles. 

Our brain stem is the most primordial part of our thinking anatomy. It controls fight or flight responses and base emotions. 

This is an area of our bodies that we want to be without the pressure of contracted muscles and poor circulation nearby at all costs.

So this snowball effect of tension, tightness, and pain is one to take note of.

Which patient do you identify with the most?

Both of them have tight shoulders, but their problem might not stem from where you think it does. Sure: typing, phone gazing, injury, or lifting too many weights is the first port of call for a happy shoulder check-up, but it’s not the only place we need to look if we’re seeking long-lasting relief from something that brings you down (literally!).

Whatever activity you’re doing for a sustained period of time can cause tension and pain, sometimes even sleeping or cuddling can be the culprit! You have to pay attention to how it may cause tightness in different points in your body.

Hunching over anything: a laptop, a phone, a game controller - reinforces a position on your body that it is not ready to keep up with long-term. That’s why it's tight. Tightness is your brain’s first hint to you that your way of life is compromising your ability to flourish. 

If you don’t release those muscles with a neck release tool like the NUCKLE, then pain may be the second, less subtle hint.


Is it bad to have tight shoulders?

From tension to tightness, that constriction and pain is a sign that your body isn’t aligned in an optimal way. Smaller muscles may be overworked and knotted doing the work that bigger muscles aren’t. 

Tight shoulders are a warning sign that something could be working much more smoothly, and that the problem may be greater than just your shoulders. Tight shoulders can also become a cause of migraines, back pain, hip pain, and other pains in connected areas of your body.

How do you release tight shoulder blades?

Sustained, precise pressure. Even though it may seem that rubbing the area or getting a massage is helping, that’s not a long-lasting solution. Releasing tight shoulders requires accurate and enduring pressure on the affected area for over a minute. Your physiotherapist practitioner can do this for you, or you can do it yourself using the NUCKLE in a variety of essential pressure exercises.

Why are my shoulders so tight?

In most cases, it comes from lifestyle choices that encourage hunching forwards to get your work done or check a notification. But it can be any repetitive motion that causes us to use one side of the body more than the other.

These behaviors reinforce the misalignment of our muscular system. And if your muscles and counter muscles are never effectively turned off, then they remain contracted and ready for lifting or movement even when that isn’t necessary. They’re not taking a break when they’re supposed to (where have I heard that one before?)

By Christine Koth . Thu Nov 11

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.