Anyone who has unhappily sat in traffic can probably relate to the experience of having his or her neck and shoulder muscles tighten. Stress has been linked to tension headaches, neck pain and myriad other muscular issues. “Knots” commonly show up in the upper back area after a stressful day at the office. Physical therapy can help with these stress-related problems in a number of ways but first we need to look at stress in two categories, environmental and biomechanical.
Environmental stress reflects the frantic day at the office or the unending traffic jam. Techniques such as segmental relaxation, meditation, deep breathing, yoga and Ti Chi are helpful techniques, which can be learned and practiced to gain some control over the body’s response to environmental stress.
Biomechanical stress, on the other hand, is affected by the structural alignment of the pelvis, spine and head. Since we spend most of our waking day in an upright position, gravity is the most important and consistent force working on our skeleton and the muscles holding it up and making it move.
Think of a well-balanced body as a two-story well-constructed house. It has a solid foundation and it was framed such that the corners are all square. Walls, which bear the weight of the house, are equal, so there is no undue structural stress. Now add an environmental stress, such as a strong wind or an underground disturbance such as nearby blasting or a small earthquake. The house with the solid and self-balanced structural formation is more resilient.
Using the same example, a house that was not built on a level foundation or without attention to equal weight distribution quickly shows the areas of increased structural tension when faced with the same environmental stress. Just so for a body out of alignment. In our bodies, although everyday stress affects people differently from an emotional standpoint, the muscular ramifications on where that stress lands can be predicted by the person’s posture.
The person driving a car several hours a day probably has some low back and neck issues just from being in a seated position that long. Unless the motorist regularly exercises, he or she probably has lost the normal inward curve in the low back, and may even find it uncomfortable to use a lumbar support (a small roll place at the belt line to assist in correct supported sitting posture). If the lumbar curve is diminished, the head naturally starts to drift forward of the spine, causing the neck muscles to tighten. The more forward the head drifts, the more the space between the base of the skull and the first vertebra of the neck is compromised. This starts to restrict the normal circulatory flow to the muscles in that area and can cause tension headaches and neck muscle spasms. Add to that the environmental stress of sitting in heavy traffic, and you have the makings of a bad day.
The same can be said of sitting at a computer. The more balanced and properly aligned your body is, the fewer physical complaints occur. The environmental stresses are still there; they just won’t be reflected as much in muscular tightness. A physical therapist trained in manual therapy can not only balance your posture but can also advise on correct ergonomic set ups in an office.
Making sure that your office chair has arm rests that support your arms as they fall naturally at your side when you sit upright with a good lumbar support is key to cutting down on undue wear and tear. Wherever possible, use a headset or earpiece to avoid holding a phone between your ear and shoulder. If your legs are short, place your seat at the proper height so that your forearms are level with your work area, and position your feet on a footstool so they don’t dangle. Be sure to keep close to the keyboard the arm and hand that control the mouse. Too often, undue stress is put on the neck and shoulders when you constantly extend your arm and elbow forward in using a mouse.
Lastly, a physical therapist can recommend postural and core-stability exercises reinforcing solid strengthening of key muscle groups to maintain postural improvements. This way, in addition to taking steps to avoid postural stresses, you gain the wellness benefit of relieving environmental stress through an exercise routine.
Although no one has a sure-fire plan to reduce the stress in peoples’ lives, there are steps everyone can take to reduce the most common muscle symptoms.