Neck and Shoulder Pain, the Bane of the Computer Age

I’m putting on my Massage Therapist hat today and going a little off topic. I want to discuss a topic that affects almost everyone I know: neck and shoulder pain associated with habitual computer use.

Many people dealing with this don’t realize that the computer is the source of their issue. Typically, I’ll have people speculate that it’s from exercise, or sleeping position, or an old injury, but more often than not it’s from spending 12+ hours a day hunched over in one position:

Screen Shot 2013-07-29 at 12.19.10 PM


Screen Shot 2013-07-29 at 12.23.45 PM

Chronic neck and shoulder pain has a pretty profound impact on quality of life. The BEST treatment, of course, is quitting your job and spending the rest of your life lounging on a tropical beach. If that’s not a feasible option, there are some things we can do to manage it.


I’m discussing sleep first, because for the vast majority of people, simply getting adequate sleep will be the most beneficial change they can make. Adequate sleep allows the muscles to relax so the body can repair. Perhaps more importantly, inadequate sleep can compromise the serotonin system’s ability to support pain inhibition with natural opioids (1). Getting adequate sleep normalizes neuroendocrine function and supports homeostasis (2). There’s evidence that duration and quality of sleep can have a strong impact on the experience of pain (3). 7-8 hours a night of restful sleep seems to be ideal for most people, although some can get by with less and a few need more. We tend to dismiss the importance of sleep, but it’s probably one of the simplest and most profound changes we can make to improve our quality of life. William Dement has a fantastic book about the connection between sleep and pain (and other aspects of health): The Promise of Sleep: the Vital Connection Between Health, Happiness, and a Good Night’s Sleep


Simply getting up out of your chair several times a day will bring relief! But there are specific exercises you can do as well. In a 2008 study, participants engaging in a simple strength training protocol experienced a 75% decrease in neck and shoulder pain over 10 weeks. The protocol involved 5 exercises, performed for 20 minutes 3 times a week. The exercises were the dumbbell shrug, bent over row, lateral raise, upright row and reverse fly. All of these can be done with light to moderate dumbbells or resistance bands. In fact, you can keep a set of dumbbells at your desk at work and do these exercises during down time, that’s how simple they are. Harvard Medical School has a great description of the study and the exercise protocol here.


Take a few moments each day to give your neck and shoulder muscles a good stretch. The Mayo Clinic provides a few in this tutorial video, here are some more from E-How Health. If you’re looking for something more in depth, the Mayo Clinic created this guide to dealing with back pain for Gaiam. It includes exercises and stretching as well as nutrition and home care tips.


Studies show that massage can improve functionality and the experience of pain (4), at least in the short term. Massage won’t bring permanent relief unless you are able to stop doing that which is causing the pain (which is usually not realistic, as most of us must use computers in our jobs), but it will bring temporary relief, and regular massage can help manage the pain and stiffness from computer use. There are even self massage techniques you can utilize, and several very effective self massage tools, including the Thera Cane (my favorite) and Trigger Point Balls.


Setting up your work station so that you are in a more natural position can be very helpful. If you habitually work on a laptop, use it at a table or desk rather than on your lap. UC Berkeley provides some simple tips for setting up an ergonomically correct workstation here. There are a wealth of products designed to create more ergonomically correct work stations, from tablet stands to ergonomic mice to lumbar support. You spend hours on end at this station, take some time to make sure it’s set up to minimize pain and stress on your body.

Most importantly, I think, is simple mindfullness. Our bodies don’t do well when we don’t move, so be aware of how long you’ve been sitting in one position and make an effort to increase your physical activity during the day. We spend a tremendous amount of time and energy thinking about what we eat and how we exercise, but something as simple as how we sit at our desks can have a really profound impact on our quality of life. It doesn’t take heroic measures to change though, just a few simple tweaks can make a huge difference. And as an added bonus, several of the things that I’ve discussed here not only improve neck and shoulder pain, they also improve overall health and support the maintenance of a healthy weight!

Relax The Back

Taming the Weight Room 2: The Equipment

This is the second in a series of blog posts, you can find the first here.

Today I’m going to give you a ‘tour’ of a typical weight room, familiarize you with the equipment you will find there, and give you some tips for finding your bearings in this unfamiliar place. When you know what the equipment is for and how to use it, it’s a whole lot less intimidating!

There are two main categories of weightlifting equipments: free weights and weight machines. Many people feel more comfortable starting out on machines, so we’ll start there.

Weight Machines

Weight machines are large pieces of equipment that are used to work one muscle or muscle group in one motor pathway. Their appeal is that they are easy to use (you can usually find instructions for their use right on the machine) and reduce the risk of injury to the user. Both of these factors make them appealing to beginners, and machines can be a good starting point for someone just getting acclimated to the gym. They have drawbacks, however. Because they force the body into one motor pathway over and over, there is a risk of overuse injuries. And, because they isolate a single muscle or muscle group, they don’t allow the body to work as a unit and strengthen stabilizing muscles. If you do decide to start on machines, move to free weights as soon as possible.

Cable machines are very large pieces of equipment that utilize weight stacks connected to handles via a system of pulleys and cables. Cable machines are much more versatile than standard weight machines, and allow the body to work more as a unit, thereby allowing for improvements in core strength and stability. Most cable machines allow the user to do a wide variety of exercises.

Expert Village has a great collection of tutorial videos for using weight machines properly, find them here.

Free Weights

Dumbbells and barbells can be more intimidating to beginners, which is unfortunate because they’re far more effective for building full-body strength than machines. There are two main benefits to free weights:

They recruit more muscles. With free weights, you aren’t locked into one motor pathway, so your body is able to recruit more stabilizing and supportive muscles to accomplish the task of moving the weight. This allows your body to get stronger in more natural chains of motion, which translates to better real-world functionality. When you’re working in a standing position, free weights force your core to engage to do the job it is intended for: stabilization. The end result is that your core strength improves without needing to devote time to core isolating exercises. I do very little dedicated core work but have well developed abs nonetheless, because I do lots of free weight exercises that keep my core engaged to stabilize.

They’re more fun. Lets face it, for most of us, sitting in a machine and doing the exact same repetitive motion multiple times can be a little dull. Free weights provide more variety and challenge, and as you get stronger and more skilled you can advance to increasingly intricate moves, like snatches and clean and jerks.

Hiring a Personal Trainer to get you started with some basic coaching in form and proper use of weight equipment is a very good idea, but if it’s not an option there are lots of great resources to draw from. has wonderful exercise tutorial descriptions and videos.

Some basic free weight tips:
-the long barbell that you load weight plates onto is called an Olympic bar and its standard weight is 45 pounds
-when you calculate how much weight you’re lifting, include the weight of the bar
-the ‘Power Rack’ is the tall metal cage looking contraption used for squats. Some people call it the squat rack or squat cage. I found a great basic tutorial for it’s use here.
-use ‘clips‘ or ‘collars‘ to secure weight plates onto the bar
-most weight plates are made of metal and come in standard weights of 1, 2.5, 5, 10, 25, 35 and 45 pounds. Bumper plates are made of rubber and are designed for use in Olympic lifting and any lifting where dropping the bar during a lift may become necessary. They generally come in 10, 15, 25, 35, 45 and sometimes 55 or more pounds.

Other Equipment

Other equipment you may find in your weight room:

-Kettlebells are fun and a great way to add variety to your workouts. has great kettlebell tutorials.
-steps and boxes for box jumps, step ups and other exercises utilizing elevated surface
-sandbags – I love my sandbag. You can use it in place of a barbell or dumbbell for almost any exercise, and do other things like shouldering that you can’t do with standard weight training equipment.
-battleropes, agility ladders, medicine balls and more. If you find a piece of equipment you want to add to your routine, youtube is a great place to look for tutorials and ideas.

Hopefully this gives you a better sense of familiarity with the equipment you’ll find in a typical weight room. In the next installment of this series I’ll discuss the exercises themselves, and go over how to put a basic workout together. Stay tuned!