Cold Weather and Neck Pain

Shiver, shake, tighten up. Hunching one’s shoulders in the cold is so instinctive. Even when wrapped in polar fleece and down it seems to be the most natural thing to do against a cold wind or stinging cold. It’s also a reflexive response to cold, a literal drawing inward to keep you warm and protect yourself.

A client once told me that she used to regularly visit a chiropractor for treatment when she was in college. She would always get shoulder and neck pain during cold weather; it was a mystery to her until she realized that she would repeatedly hunch her shoulders in an attempt to stay warm – even though this action didn’t even succeed in doing so!

I appreciated this story because recently I saw a client with the same complaint: when the weather gets cold, her shoulders hurt all the time – she’s constantly “tightening up” against the cold.

The hunching of the shoulders and rounding inward as if we were turtles pulling our heads into our shells – is the posture of the Red Light Reflex – a reflex evoked by fear, anxiety, worry, and the need to protect ourselves. It’s as psychological as it is physiological. This reflexive pattern can result in neck and shoulder pain, as well as shallow breathing and stooped, slumped posture. Like all reflexes, it’s universal, it’s in our brains, and we’ll never get rid of it; it’s just something we need to be in control of so that it is not in control of us.

As I learned on my trek in the Himalayas one of the best measures you can take against the cold – is to dress in layers and wear a scarf. Yes, I know I sound like your mother, but if you know it’s going to be cold, layers and warm clothing (especially a scarf) will work best to allow you to stand up straight and walk with your arms swinging and your head naturally balanced on top of your neck rather than drawn in like a turtle. This will create more heat in your body and allow for better overall circulation as well.

When you get home from your winter walk, do a short routine of Somatic Exercises to shake off any tension:

These are excellent movement that address not only the Red Light Reflex but the
shoulder shrugtension that builds up in the center of the body when we brace ourselves against the cold. You can gently pandiculate the muscles of the neck and shoulders as well – contracting into the muscles in that protective “hunch” as you see me doing in the photo on the right – and slowly releasing out of it back to neutral. If you make the movement like a yawn you’ll find the tension in your neck and shoulders is reduced the more repetitions you do.

Don’t let the winter keep you indoors! It’s been said before that movement is medicine; it’s the best way to build a strong, intelligent body that can withstand the stress of computers, cars and cold winters. There are many things to do outdoors in the cold of winter. Be creative, breathe deeply and keep moving. It’s going to be a long winter!

The Link Between Neck and Shoulder Pain and Shallow Breathing

Most of my clients work 10 hours a day at the computer, commute, care for their families, and get in a workout whenever possible. Most of them don’t realize that they aren’t breathing fully enough to help reduce their stress. Every one of these clients has elements of what we call the Red Light Reflex (also know as the Startle Reflex) in their posture: rounded and slumped shoulders, a neck that juts out slightly, tight abdominals, and shallow chest breathing. This posture, commonly associated with aging, is more and more common among young people who spend hours on the computer, playing video games, and using cell phones or iPads.

Hunched posture is a response to stress.

The “fight or flight” state of stress is a primal survival instinct that kicks in when there is real or perceived danger. In Hanna Somatics, the physical posture is the Red Light Reflex of protection and withdrawal: hunched and rounded shoulders, a neck that juts forward, and tight abdominals that suppress breathing. This posture occurs due to fear, anxiety, danger and on-going emotional stress. It can also become habituated through the repetitive functional action of holding a small baby to one’s chest to nurse.

For many people in today’s modern world there is a tendency to get stuck in this reflexive posture – even when there is no emergency or threat to one’s own survival (or after the functional action is finished). For many people just the idea of how much needs to get done on a daily basis is enough to cause them to stop breathing, hunch their shoulders and stiffen their necks, as if danger is right around the corner. Repeat this all day long, and the end result is neck and shoulder pain, joint pain and/or sheer fatigue from shallow breathing and lack of oxygenation to one’s brain.

Hans Selye, the endocrinologist who discovered the General Adaptation Syndrome, is considered “the father of stress research.”  He stated that all disease is disease of adaptation – meaning that humans adapt to stress, which alters metabolism and other physiological states in our bodies – and that we have a limited amount of adaptive energy to deal with stress. If ignored, a continuously stressed body in a “fight or flight” state of high alert, will lose its ability to defend against illness.

We’re no longer being chased by predators, yet too many of us experience the stress of our lives as if such a scenario were taking place. The real danger today occurs when we habitually respond to non-life threatening events as if they truly were. When the Red Light Reflex  becomes “the norm” in our bodies, here’s what can happen:

  • We don’t breathe fully.
  • Our brain and heart don’t get the oxygen they need.
  • Our mental and emotional well-being is adversely affected.
  • We contract the muscles of the front of our bodies, which slumps and collapses us forward.
  • We lose our equilibrium, causing other muscles to compensate and work harder than normal to keep us in balance.
  • Neck and shoulder pain, TMJ/jaw pain, mid-back pain, headaches, fatigue, digestive problems and sleep problems can develop.

Try this exercise to improve breathing, reduce stress and reverse the Red Light Reflex.

Here’s a wonderful exercise, called The Flower.

To buy my book, Move Without Pain, and my pain-relief DVDs, click here.

Reset Your Gait, Improve Your Walking

Anyone who knows me knows I love to walk and hike. I’m doing my best to take after my mother; she’s  86-years-old and still trekking and traveling. The photo at right is of my mother and me in the Himalayas in December 2011. My mother is healthier and stronger than most 50 year olds I know, with the endurance of an ox. One of the biggest secrets to her good health is her daily walking habit.

A recent study about exercise shows that walking beats the competition when it comes to positive development in the hippocampus of the brain and in spatial memory.  Walking, the activity seen as a “non-activity,” by many because it appears to not be vigorous enough – is one of the best full-body functional exercise regimens you could ever follow. It is also the quintessential human movement. We are built to walk.

The way in which you walk makes all the difference.

There is an efficient (and inefficient) way to walk. A balanced, natural walk involves “cross-patterning” – the shoulders and hips moving in opposition to each other. The spine rotates gently to aid the movement of the shoulders. The hips move gently up and down, forward and back as the arms swing gently in opposite to the legs. The center of the body is upright and lengthened. You are on top of your hips, not pitched forward in front of them.

If you don’t sense this kind of movement, you are working too hard when you walk. You are also likely not using your feet properly to aid in the movement. Efficient walking looks like the photo above, taken in India.

If you want to be able to climb stairs with freedom and balance as long as you live it’s best to go back to the basics: learn to walk the way you did as a child – freely and effortlessly.

The first step is to learn to release and relax the muscles of the center of the body so your hips, pelvis, shoulders and back can move fluidly and easily. Adaptation to accidents, injuries, long term stress, or overtraining can create chronically contracted muscles in the back, waist and abdominals.  This can result in short steps, a shuffling or a lumbering gait. Tightness in the center restricts  freedom of movement and puts excessive pressure on the hips joints.

Hanna Somatic Exercises, especially arch and flatten, the side bend, and the washrag are a great place to start to learn how to regain an efficient, balanced gait. You can also read this blog post to learn an easy exercise to improve your walking and become more aware of your walking habits.

In order to not let stress get the better of us (and our muscle patterns) we need to be aware of our daily habits and movement. One of the beautiful things about walking is that you have a chance to move your entire body in a way it was meant to move and notice what you’re doing. Breathe and shake off the stress. Once you can walk smoothly and effortlessly you’re ready to run. It’s basic. And it will keep you moving well into old age, just like my mother.

Click here to purchase my easy-to-follow Somatic Exercise DVDs.

Recommended for pain-free, balanced walking: Pain Relief Through Movement and Pain-Free Leg and Hip Joints

New Year’s Resolution #1: Get Rid of Back Pain

How many of you have back pain and found that last year you spent hundreds of dollars and countless hours attempting to get rid of it? You may have tried stretching, chiropractic, dry needling, foam rollers, surgery, or even drugs, but none of these methods have helped you for the long term.

Hanna Somatics teaches a long-term, scientifically based solution to back pain.

Education is one of the best ways to demystify almost any problem.  The more you know, the more you can help yourself. When it comes to eliminating chronic back pain there is some simple, profoundly sensible scientific information that is missing in most medical and therapeutic approaches to this problem: how the brain senses and controls the muscles.

The brain-to-muscle connection acts like a simple feedback loop, much like the underlying system of a computer: sensory (feeling) information goes into the brain and motor (movement) messages go out to the muscles.  You sense, you move, you sense, you move.

When it comes to back pain specifically, there is a specific Green light reflexbrain reflex, called the Green Light Reflex (or Landau Response) that is at the root of most chronic back pain. This reflex is invoked whenever there is a “call to action” to get something done: the alarm clock goes off, we’re late for work, we need to stand all day, we’re rushing here and there. When the Green Light Reflex occurs, all of the muscles of the back of the body, from the base of the skull down to the tailbone contract tightly to move us forward into action. In its extreme, the Green Light Reflex looks like the photo at right.

The Green Light Reflex is a positive response to stress. However, we don’t want to get stuck in this (or any) reflex pattern. We need to learn to relax the muscles of the back when they are no longer needed for an action.

Whatever we do consistently becomes a habit at the brain level. If we constantly contract our backs in response to stress, yet neglect to remind those muscles to relax and release when they’re no longer needed, the muscles will learn to stay tight and contracted. Tight muscles are inefficient, fatigued, and painful muscles that are constantly switched on.

The easy solution to back pain is to learn to release the tight muscles of the back.

No doctor, massage therapist, or physical therapist can release your back muscles for you; you must do it for yourself.

Arch and Flatten is one of the most basic, safe and simple movements you could ever do to begin to regain control of your back muscles, relieve muscle pain and take back control of your body.

Hanna Somatic Exercises are a simple, inexpensive way to begin to learn to regain control of your back muscles so you can get rid of your pain – for the long term. I am convinced that if doctors, physical therapists ad massage therapists were to teach Hanna Somatic Exercises to those with back pain, they would help save millions of healthcare dollars.

Check out the Essential Somatics® Store for my book and DVDs.

Interested in more? You can attend a workshop or Somatics training.