Insights from a Massage Therapist
“When in sickness, look to the spine first.”– Hippocrates
I am a Massage Therapist.
Often times I will work chair massage events in a corporate setting.
Last week I went to a local tech company and offered chair massage to their employees for two days.
While I was there, I had this realization:
Chair massage is like speed dating for the body worker.
That sounds a little peculiar, so allow me to expand on the thought.
At a speed dating event, people who are seeking romantic relationships have a short conversation with a potential partner.
They typically are given 5 to 10 minutes to talk with each other to gage any mutual interests.
After the allotted time, they move on to the next prospect.
A therapist facilitating a chair massage event, is essentially using the same format, just for different gains.
Instead of having a verbal conversation to find a potential romantic partner, a therapist is having a short conversation with the muscles in a body, to find the areas of tension.
This format provides a rapid fire way of seeing what’s happening within individual bodies, in a large group of people.
The fascinating part of these events is watching the similarities unfold.
People who spend the majority of their day in the same environment, have the same areas of tension.
It’s the common thread.
People who have an occupation that requires them to sit for long periods of time, working at a computer, generally carry their tension in one of two areas:
Area 1: The neck and shoulders, often resulting in headaches and migraines.
Area 2: The low back and hips, often resulting in sciatica or spinal health deterioration.
In my experience, this is the case for the majority of people that I see, regardless of their physical activity level outside of their day job.
In other words, I have worked with the proverbial “couch potato” and also with competitive body builders.
Regardless of how physically fit the person is, if they work at a desk for a substantial period of time each day, they still have tension and pain in one or both, of these two areas.
So, let’s explore the cause, as well as what you can do to combat chronic muscle tension and skeletal misalignment.
For the Neck and Shoulders:
When standing with a straight spine, the weight of the head puts about 10 pounds of pressure onto your spinal column. This is what your body was built to sustain.
When we slouch, we add approximately 12 pounds of pressure to the spine for every 15 degrees that the head moves forward, away from the midline.
So, what does that mean, exactly?
Pick up your cell phone and hold it in your hand as if you were going to text someone or scroll through your favorite social media app.
Are your shoulders rounded forward?
Is your head tilted downward so that you can see the screen?
If they are, you have just added 60 pounds of pressure to your spine when it’s only designed to sustain 10.
Now think about how often your body is in that position.
When the body is out of alignment in this way, we are using the muscles in our shoulders, neck, upper back and even our chest to stabilize our spine.
And when our muscles are working to stabilize our spine for long periods of time, they become tight and begin to generate adhesions, or “knots”, effectively decreasing their ability to work properly.
What are the muscles associated with this area and what can you do to prevent adhesion?
There are three main muscles in this group that I have found tension or adhesions on nearly every person that I work with.
Trapezius: This muscle is used to shrug and stabilize the shoulders and to tilt and turn the head. To keep this muscle in alignment drop your shoulders away from your ears. Pretend like you have weights attached to your elbows that pull your shoulders downward, lengthening the cervical spine in your neck.
Rhomboids: These muscles are used to pull the shoulder blades in toward each other and work to elevate the shoulder blades with the help of the levator scapulae. To move and stretch these muscles, reach your arms out in front of your body. Clasp one hand on top of the other and gently reach out so that you feel your shoulder blades stretching away from each other. Slowly bend your head forward to deepen the stretch.
Levator Scapulae: This muscle rotates and flexes the neck side to side and helps stabilize the neck in forward or backward motion. To stretch this muscle, rotate your head about 45 degrees to the left. Place your left hand behind your head and gently pull it at an angle toward your knee. Repeat on the opposite side.
For the lower back and hips:
The pelvic girdle, commonly known as the hips, serves as an attachment point for the muscles of the torso and also the muscles of the upper leg. Its primary job is to support and stabilize movement.
When we sit down, the weight of the body is transferred from an aligned, minimal impact position (standing), to an area supported mainly by the pelvic girdle.
This puts more pressure and strain on the lower spinal column.
If you are currently sitting in a chair, think about the last 10 minutes. How often have you adjusted your body or shifted position?
We fidget while sitting because that’s our body’s natural defense against postural stress.
So, the more often we move and shift position, the more stress our spinal column and the surrounding muscles are under.
Because this area carries the full weight of the torso, adding increased pressure makes it the part of the spine most likely to be injured.
Just as with our neck, when the lower spine is out of alignment, the surrounding muscles work overtime to try to stabilize and relieve some of the pressure that has been put on the vertebra.
And, as I’m sure you can guess… this causes tension and adhesion.
What are the main muscles associated with lower back and hip pain?
There are five main muscle groups that I have found to contribute to pain and tension in this area.
Quadratus Lumborum: Commonly referred to as the “QL”, this muscle works to stabilize the lower spine and pelvis. To stretch it, begin in a standing position and reach your left hand up toward the ceiling. Bend your right knee and raise your right hip toward the ceiling as well. Inhale and feel a stretch in your left QL; exhale to release. Repeat on the opposite side.
Glutes: This group is comprised of three gluteus muscles, the maximus, medius and minimus. They are all responsible for movement of the hip and thigh. To stretch the glutes, from a sitting position, bring your right ankle to your left thigh, just above the knee. Slowly turn your pelvis towards the left until you either feel a good stretch or the outer left thigh, knee and right foot touch the floor. Repeat on the opposite side.
Piriformis: This small muscle helps to rotate the hip, when too tight it will constrict over the sciatic nerve, contributing to sciatic nerve pain. To stretch this muscle, lie on your back. Place your left ankle just above your right knee. Use your hands to clasp behind your left knee and pull gently it toward the opposite shoulder. Repeat on the opposite side.
Hamstrings: These muscles work to extend the hip and flex the knee. While sitting at the edge of a chair, straighten one leg in front of the body with the heel on the floor. Then, sit up straight and try pushing the navel towards the thigh without leaning the trunk of the body forwards. Repeat on the opposite side.
Quadriceps: These muscles are essential in the movement of the leg and also in flexion of the hip. From a standing position, pull the foot of the left leg towards your glute until you can feel a gentle stretch on the front of the thigh. Repeat on the opposite side.
If you find that you’re sitting for more than one or two hours a day, (which let’s be honest…is probably most of us) stretching out these muscles is a great way to combat extra strain placed on the spine.
Also, take a look at your work area.
Is it set up in a way that will truly benefit your body?
Here are some additional things that you can do to help prevent strain and injury:
Get an ergonomic keyboard.
Make sure that your chair is adjusted to properly fit your body.
Invest in a standing or treadmill desk.
Get up and move every thirty minutes.
Take some time this week to bring awareness to how your body feels.
Notice the areas where you carry your tension and try some of these tactics to help loosen up those muscles.
Pretty soon, you’ll not only be feeling better physically, but you’ll be more productive.
You’ll even notice a boost in mental clarity.
Give it a try and reap the benefits that are sure to come.