Janine Agoglia, MAOM, L.Ac., Dipl.Ac, Dipl.CH View Entire Blog

What a Pain in the Neck! Natural Remedies for Neck and Upper Back Pain

Upper Back and Neck pain (UBNP) have become very commonplace in modern society. With the amount of sitting (slouching), computer work, driving and looking down (at phones, tablets, etc) that we do, it is not surprising. When the torso is vertical and the head is properly aligned over the shoulders, gravity's impact on the musculature is minimal. As the head starts to come forward, from looking down or toward a computer screen or windshield, the upper back and neck muscles have to work much harder to resist gravity's pull on the heavy skull. The more the head comes forward, the more strain there is on the upper back and neck muscles, which can often weaken and begin to hurt over time.

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. Often we contract the muscles of the neck, chest and upper back as if we are bracing ourselves: 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 breaths), which will cause tension in the chest, upper back and neck.

From a TCM perspective, stress affects the Liver, which is a Yin organ. It creates smooth Qi flow 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 Gallbladder is the Liver's Yang organ pair. When the Liver is stressed, you see Gallbladder channel pain: headaches on the sides of the head, pain down the sides of the neck, chest tightness, hip tightness, pain down the sides of the legs or knees, etc.

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 posture tip 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. If you can't see behind you while you are driving, that's 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). 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 slouching. At least once an hour 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 large circles, squeezing the shoulders up by your ears and then rolling and pressing them down.
•Let your head fall toward your right shoulder and hold for 3 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 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. Hold 3 breaths.