Up to Our Ears in Shoulders: How Sitting All Day Creates Shoulder Pain

Our modern lifestyle has triggered a large number of pain problems related to the fact that we move so little. Twenty years ago few people had personal computers at home, and most probably didn’t own cell phones. Today, however, many jobs require almost continuous work at computer workstations. This means keyboarding, using a mouse, and sitting in a fixed position for hours on end. And, after a full day of keyboarding and mouse moving at work, folks seem to spend more and more of their leisure time surfing the Internet and playing computer games.

What does all this hunching over computers do to our bodies? The next time you have a chance, observe a group of people working at computer-based workstations. Watch them for about an hour to get a good idea of how much—or little—they move. How often do they shift their necks and lower backs? Do they keep their elbows flexed the whole time? Are their shoulders shrugged up close to their ears? How much weight-bearing activity, like standing or walking, occurs? You will notice that there isn’t a lot of movement going on in their joints and that their biggest muscles, those in their legs and back, are used infrequently.

When a body works in a semi-fixed position for endless periods of time, it starts to adapt by over-engaging certain muscles needed to hold things in place, and turning off other muscles not directly related to the task. Most of us have a tendency to over-activate our upper trapezius muscles (which run down the back of the neck, shoulders, and upper back) when we do fine-motor activities with our hands because it helps hold our fingers, hands, wrists, and forearms up while we work. If you take your hand, place it at the base of your neck and slide it down sideways to the horizontal plane topping your shoulder, it will be resting on your trapezius. Pinch the muscle and see how it feels. Does it seem knotted up? This muscle often gets over-stimulated not only by repetitive use of the hands, but by emotional stress, as well.

At the same time the trapezius is tightening, other muscles around the shoulder blades get turned off and stop working. These muscles are important for stabilizing the shoulder joints, and normally they work in concert with the trapezius. But with the trapezius “on” so often and the other muscles “off,” the balance tips and will lead to postural changes. The shoulders and neck start to stiffen and lose function.

The human body was designed for movement, not stagnation. We used to move, move, move all day long. Now we typically sit still for prolonged periods at work, take a sedentary trip home, perform more sedentary activities in the evening, and then lie down in bed all night. We overuse some muscles while ignoring others.

The more we do this to our bodies, the more likely they will start to hurt. There was a time where most injuries were caused by sports or industrial accidents. While these types of injuries still occur, I now see lots of pain problems caused by just the opposite—inactivity.

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