Is Your Posture Causing Shoulder Pain?

Have you been taught by your Physical Therapist, Yoga teacher, Pilates teacher or trainer to press your shoulders back and down for good posture?

What if, instead, you were to ease your shoulders up; rotate them slightly back to open the chest; and then allow them to gently drop into place. Then forget about them and move on with your day.

Up and open, not back and down?

Shirley Sahrmann, an influential Physical Therapist, first introduced me to this concept. Her work emphasizes that many, if not most, pain and orthopedic problems are created and maintained by faulty postures and movement patterns.* When I volunteered to be a guinea pig in her continuing ed class, she curtly informed me that I hold my shoulders in an overly depressed position. Really? But wait — I learned to do this as a dancer for good posture. Now you’re telling me that the years-long habit of pressing my shoulders back and down may actually have caused chronic shoulder pain and dysfunction?

Have you never secretly wondered about the instruction to “press your shoulders back and down” — that it sounds, and looks, just a little like the old military instruction “stand up straight, chest out, shoulders back.” Though well-intentioned, it may not be the best advice to correct either internally rotated shoulders or an habitual slouch. Yes, it might facilitate chest opening and elongate tight pectoralis muscles. You may even activate the posterior shoulder blade and postural muscles, like the lower trapezius. Unfortunately, the rhomboids may also become overly activated, too. According to Shirley, shortened rhomboids are not desirable. Besides, you are probably freezing other shoulder blade muscles, like the important serratus anterior, into a chronically tense and overly elongated position. This is NOT desirable. Muscles need to be free and balanced to move bones, especially those of the shoulder blades.

Besides, holding almost any muscle in a static position isn’t usually a good idea. It can create a new host of problems.

Ask yourself, is it possible that pressing your shoulders back and down may actually increase tension in the cervical/shoulder complex and contribute to neck strain and pain? Might it also cause you to press the top of your shoulder, the acromion, down onto the humeral head, creating a moment of impingement within the shoulder joint, contributing to wear and tear of the rotator cuff or a frozen shoulder? The shoulders, particularly in men and women in their 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, not infrequently become problematic through impingement syndromes, frozen shoulder or rotator cuff pulls, strains and tears.

Just for now, try easing your shoulders up, back and then relax them into gravity, easing them into place. You can accomplish the same desired goal of decreasing rounded shoulders, while at the same time creating more relaxation and ease in your neck and shoulders.



*This may or may not include athletic or other kinds of accidents and injuries caused by sudden impact.  Having said that, even a sudden injury or accident can be contributed to by the habitual strain caused by faulty posture, poor training, conditioning or ineffective movement habits.

Mindful Advice for a Painful Shoulder

This was written to a patient after I had seen her for an initial treatment. She had developed a painful shoulder from shoveling snow earlier in the Winter.

You may want to notice your shoulder at different points during the day, or at night, or in the morning when you’re still in bed. Just quietly become aware of extra tension or holding in that shoulder. Then, breathe into it gently a couple of times.

It may relax, or it might not. What’s important is to gently become aware of what’s going on with an accepting mind and then to breathe WITH the tension, discomfort or pain. It isn’t necessary to have a goal to change the feeling, but simply to notice it and to breathe into and with it.

I’m passing this along because when I woke up this morning, I became aware that I was holding my left shoulder, one with a chronic & old injury, in a tense and elevated position. Then, I took a quiet, mindful breath into my shoulder and watched it unwind from the tense holding pattern that had crept into it. Amazingly, it felt much better once I noticed the feeling of tension and holding in the shoulder.

Sometimes we hold our hurt wings with tension, in anticipation of pain. This can set up a pain, holding/spasm, pain cycle just like an injury can. But the tools of awareness and breathing mindfully can help relieve the fear of anticipation to derail the tension/holding/spasm before it gets going.

Try this the next time you wake up with pain: Notice it. Accept it. Breathe with it. Then see what happens and get on with the day.