Three Simple Fixes To Avoid Neck And Shoulder Pain


Your mother was right.

Well, my mother was right 🙂

She liked to remind me to sit up straight, stand straight, look up. It’s what a young man is supposed to do!

Yeah, well, older men should do it too.

Here are three ways to help you sit up and stand up straighter and, as a fringe benefit, seem youngsitting-stooler almost instantly.

Use A String

Sit on the edge of a chair as you would normally sit.

Now, imagine a string is anchored in your upper chest right about the level of your heart. Now take the other end of that string and pull it up and away from you and let the string pull your chest along.

What happened?

Your chest should rise and your head will naturally align itself with the “upright” position. Now all you have to do is practice keeping it there.

Use A Book

You’ve seen this, right?

Woman balancing books

A young woman is introduced to learning how a young woman should walk gracefully with proper posture and appearance by practicing walking with a book balanced on her head.

Well, guess what? It works.

It’s very hard to walk with a book on your head without aligning your body properly. The book will fall off quickly.

You can pick any book but I like to use Gray’s Anatomy. Just seems like the right kind of book to put on your head.

Start with standing still then progress to a few steps. Before long, you’ll be walking your dogs no problem.

Use A Ball

Perturbation forces your body to react and correct itself. It’s a natural reflex to keep your yourself upright. So, take advantage of this and try using an inflatable Zafu in your chair for a few minutes each day while visualizing the “use a string” trick.inflateblacka

Inside the Zafu is a large beach ball. Inflate the beach ball (don’t worry – the cover of the Zafu provides enough support to sit on it).

Place the Zafu on your chair and then sit on it. While doing this, use the “string” idea I mentioned above.

The combination of the less stable sitting surface with the movement of the trunk (connected to an imaginary string) creates a natural alignment of your body.

Why Bother?

The unwitting victim of the sedentary lifestyle is the upper back: the region from the shoulder blades to the base of the neck.

Sitting, looking ahead or even worse, down, at a computer screen hours on end, your upper back must resist the load of you head which at about 10% of your body weight is like a teetering bowling ball on your shoulders. Over the years, you’ll lose mobility and look years beyond your age.

Maintaining mobility in this area of your body lends itself to less neck and shoulder trouble.

Try this to see what I mean.

  • Sit on the edge of chair – tall and upright.
  • Lift your right arm up as high as you can such that the upper arm aligns with your ear.
  • Notice the amount of motion you achieved.
  • Lower your arm to your side.
  • Assume a slumped position in the chair. Let your shoulders fall forward, round the upper back. Head forward.
  • Now repeat the movement of the arm while maintaining the slumped position.

What happened?

You probably had at least less motion and maybe felt some tightness, discomfort, pinching in the shoulder or neck are or both. It’s common to see much less motion in the shoulder with the more slumped or shoulder forward position of the thoracic spine1

Now, let’s do one more thing.

  • Sit on the edge of chair – tall and upright.
  • Turn your head to the right and then left as fas as you can.
  • Notice the amount of motion you achieved in each direction.
  • Return to the starting position.
  • Assume a slumped position in the chair. Let your shoulders fall forward, round the upper back.
  • Now repeat the movement of the your head while maintaining the slumped position.

What happened?

You had less motion turning to the right and left. As with the shoulder, the thoracic spine has a strong influence on the motion of the head and neck.2

Optimal loading of joints occurs when the joint can move through its optimal range of motion easily. With a less flexible / mobile thoracic spine, the amount of motion available to you in the shoulder and neck is reduced. This increases the workload the joint(s) experience and the increased joint loads translate into a greater chance of symptoms.

Developing mobility in your upper back and maintaining it is a great investment. And the good news is that in most cases you can change your mobility. One other thing to consider is the kind of exercise you perform. You want a variety of motions to challenge the upper body and thoracic region while minimizing unnecessary spinal stress.

How’s your posture these days? What are you doing to improve or maintain it?

  1. Kebaetse, M., P. McClure, et al. (1999). “Thoracic position effect on shoulder range of motion, strength, and three-dimensional scapular kinematics.” Arch Phys Med Rehabil 80(8): 945-950. []
  2. Quek, J., Y. H. Pua, et al. (2013). “Effects of thoracic kyphosis and forward head posture on cervical range of motion in older adults.” Man Ther 18(1): 65-71. []
Willie T. says

Can you provide some clarification for the string trick? I know you’re a magician, but it’s hard to follow where the end of the string is. You are usually so good about illustrating what you recommend, but this verbal explanation falls short of your normal high standards.

    DD Kelsey says

    Willie – I added a picture next to the description. Maybe that will help.
    Thanks –

DD Kelsey says

Jola – the ideas I presented here work. In fact, asking people to just “sit up” usually doesn’t work because your brain needs some kind of reference which is why the “string” works so well. I’ve used it for years in my practice.

But I think what you may be asking about is a “trigger” – something to remind you to use the “string” concept. Things I’ve used before are colored stickers in various places around the house, in your car, office; anytime you go in or out of doorway; anytime you’re at a stop light. You’ll probably think of some others too. They key is to find something to remind you to use the technique so that over time it becomes a habit.

Jola says

I have had poor posture all my life. Can you offer any solutions other than “sit up straight” or “stand tall.” You can’t think about it all the time. You sit up straight and start working and pretty soon you are slumped again. Is there any way to make it be natural?

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