So, coronavirus has you stressed out, huh? You aren’t alone. While stress manifests itself in different ways (hello, chin breakouts), it’s common for many people to experience increased tension in their upper body. Add to that the fact that you may now be working from home hunched over your computer and it’s no wonder your neck and shoulders are aching.
The first rule of thumb for finding relief? Bringing awareness to the "why" behind your tension, says Melissa Sophia Joy, N.D., a naturopathic doctor and certified massage therapist.
"When you bring awareness into the parts of your body which are holding stress, the awareness itself has the ability to relax and decrease stress in your body," she explains. "So next time you are feeling stress in your neck or shoulders notice what's really happening." Whether it be relationship conflict, a stressful work Zoom call, or general COVID-19 anxiety, knowing the root of your tension can help you decide the best way to address it, Dr. Joy says.
Ahead, experts weigh in on their tried-and-true tips for finding quick neck and shoulder pain relief, as well as steps you can take to improve it over the long haul.
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1. Try essential oils.
There's a good chance you've heard lavender oil can help you snooze more peacefully, but it can also help relieve neck and shoulder pain, says Juhi Singh, a licensed acupuncturist and founder of the NYC-based Juhi Center.
When you inhale the scent of an essential oil like lavender, it causes the brain to slow down, leading to a more relaxed state, Singh says. As for pain relief, a 2016 study showed that participants who combined lavender essential oil with light massage saw a "significant reduction" in pain and improved physical performance.
For added benefits, try putting a few drops on your wrist and rubbing from side to side. There are three pressure points located at the wrist — one underneath the thumb, another beneath the middle finger, and the last underneath the pinky — so massaging the area with essential oils will also give you pressure point relief.
2. Stretch to ease a tight neck and shoulders.
"Stretching can help to significantly shift tension and allow the muscles to soften," Dr. Joy says, offering her favorite neck and shoulder stretch:
3. Roll out your back with a golf ball.
While you're stretching it out, you might want to also try taking a small ball — like a golf ball — to some of your tightest neck and shoulder spots, Singh says, dubbing it a "secret weapon" for upper body pain.
"Place the golf ball against a wall and then push your back into the ball," she says. "Roll the ball around and gently massage your back against the ball. It’s an immediate way to relieve tension in your neck and shoulders, and it also acts as a sort of acupressure therapy."
You can also try using a lacrosse ball or therapy ball designed with tight muscles in mind.
4. Adjust the height of your computer screen.
Whether your dining room table has become your new "office" or you are on the couch with your laptop, there's a good chance your posture is taking the hit, says Rebecca Brown, a physical therapist.
"Due to the height of the laptop, laptop users often sit with rounded shoulders and a downward tilted chin, which is not ergonomically sound," she says. "To keep your shoulders expanded and neck elongated, I recommend subbing your laptop screen for a computer monitor that can be positioned at eye level, which will encourage an upright sitting posture."
You can also try propping your laptop on top of a stack of books to achieve a more posture-friendly position.
5. Try an OTC pain relief cream.
For Singh, her go-to is Tiger Balm, an OTC-cream made with ingredients like camphor, menthol, and clove oil.
“Tiger Balm is like Indian hot sauce for me," she says. "I put it on everything." For peak effect, Singh recommends taking a hot bath and then applying Tiger Balm because it will better permeate the skin and relax the muscles. Apply it to your neck, the base of the head, the chest, and any other part of your body that’s sore. Singh says you'll find the cream eases tension, facilitates breathing, and improves the quality of sleep because of its relaxing effect.
Dr. Joy also swears by arnica gel, a homeopathic topical treatment designed to decrease inflammation and stiffness, and can speed up the healing process from an injury (it can even knock out discoloration from bruises). All you do is apply the gel directly to the neck and shoulders and massage it in, allowing it to absorb. Repeat three times a day, or as needed.
6. Give yourself a massage — or enlist the help of a partner.
While the ultimate massage scenario might involve enlisting the help of a pro, quarantine life means you have to get creative.
One area to concentrate on is what's known as the Yin Tang point between your eyebrows, Singh says. All you have to do is place your right thumb firmly between your brows and rest the remaining four fingers on your head with your palm facing you. Press into the point for 30 seconds while taking deep breaths to calm the nervous system and simultaneously release overall anxiety and tension, even providing relief for head pain.
7. Take a break.
Above all, don't underestimate the importance of a solid break, Brown says. Get up and walk around your house or take a lap around the block (while wearing a mask, of course). You can also try a quick stretch, like this one from Brown: "If you have a tight neck, try stretching your upper trapezius by dropping your left ear toward your left shoulder and holding the stretch for 30 to 60 seconds."
If you're doing it correctly, you should feel the stretch on the right side of your neck, "which is being elongated in this position," she says. Don’t forget to repeat the same stretch on the other side before heading back to your desk.
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