How to Relax Hunched, Painful Shoulders

Unconscious movement habits can cause muscle pain.

Yesterday I spoke to a woman I’ll call Emily, a well known yoga teacher.  She was confused and frustrated about her shoulder. “I can’t get down to the floor without pain in my left shoulder. I must have an injury, because it hurts all down the left arm.” I asked her to show me what it is that she couldn’t do.  She moved gracefully through the “sun salutation,” and when she got to the part of the movement in which she lowered herself down to the ground, as in the photo at right, I watched as she easily engaged her right shoulder, but “guarded” her left shoulder.

Awareness of the problem is the first step to reversing it.

I asked her to stand up, bring her arms out like a “T.” Her posture showed her left shoulder hunched upward, while the right shoulder was relaxed.  She couldn’t feel the difference and had sensed both shoulders as being the same. I asked her if she had strained her left shoulder at any point and she admitted that she had a bad habit of hunching her left shoulder up (as if cradling a phone in her left ear). I told her that this was an example of Sensory Motor Amnesia  – chronically tight muscles that the brain had “forgotten” how to release, relax and move properly.

Pandiculation relaxes tight muscles safely and effectively: tighten first, lengthen, then relax.

Here’s how she learned to reverse the problem: With her arms at her sides, I told her to slowly, but firmly draw her left shoulder UP to ear, making the top of that shoulder even tighter than it was before. “Notice how the shoulder blade slides up along the back when you pull that shoulder upward. Let that happen.” I said. I coached her to notice – and allow – the shoulder blade to slide along the back as she lowered her shoulder to neutral.

When we don’t notice our movement, we often don’t allow muscles to move. We can improve the function of our muscles purely by noticing our movement. By doing that voluntary movement – tightening the shoulder up to her ear, then slowly relaxing it down to neutral – she regained control of her left shoulder. The pain disappeared! This voluntary contracting, lengthening, then relaxing of the muscle – called pandiculation – is what re-sets the muscle length at the brain level. It is safer than stretching, simple, and reverses pain  rapidly and effectively.

Emily then performed her sun salutation one more time. When she got to the movement that had been bothering her shoulder, she exclaimed, “it doesn’t hurt! I feel balanced again!” What a difference 5 minutes of awareness can make!

Try this easy Somatic Exercise at home for shoulder pain relief:

If your shoulders are bothering you, try this: focusing on one shoulder at a time, as I instructed Emily – slowly draw the shoulder up to your ear, then slowly relax it back to neutral. Repeat this 3 times. Notice the movement. Is it jumpy? Jerky? Shaky? If yes, then go back and do it again until the movement is smooth, even and controlled. Close your eyes and take a minute to sense the difference between the shoulder you just pandiculated and the other shoulder. Now repeat on the other side. If you like, you can finish by drawing both shoulders up to your ears (as if you were protecting yourself from the cold), then relaxing them down slowly to neutral. Again, make sure the movement is smooth and controlled. When it is, you’ve taken back conscious, voluntary control of those muscles.

Click here for Martha’s easy to follow Somatic Exercise DVD for Pain-Free Neck and Shoulders.

11 thoughts on “How to Relax Hunched, Painful Shoulders

  1. love it; last part of the movement was juddery; it was very slight and I wouldn’t have noticed it without your suggestion – thank you

    • Hi Mark,

      I’m so glad you learned something from this blog post. Awareness is the first step to relieving chronically tight muscles. If you can’t sense muscles, you can’t relax them, not move them properly. Retrain the brain to notice the muscles through pandiculation, and you’re well on your way to pain-free shoulders!

      Best to you,

    • Hi Scott,

      I’m so glad you’re feeling better during your day because of learning to pandiculate your shoulders and gain some control over them!

      Keep up the good work.

      All the best,

  2. Pingback: How to relax your body in only 5 minutes | Oevaru

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