…And in the shoulder… and the jaw… and the arms… and the back?
Muscle in with some help!
Griping about inhuman bosses, unforgiving project deadlines, or promotions deserved but denied, may help you get through a high-stress job. But it does nothing for the aches you get all over – in your jaw, neck and shoulders (which often lead to headaches) and in your lower back and legs.
Physicians today are seeing the same gallery of minor aches and pains all the time among their white-collar clientele. Often the underlying problem is a lack of exercise or bottled-up aggression. Executives who don’t get enough physical activity can’t diffuse the energy that builds up from day-to-day frustrations. The repressed urge to punch or kick somebody results directly in muscular stresses, particularly among lower-level executives who have a lot of responsibility but no control over their jobs. They become walking – rather, sitting – textbooks on what doctors in America (where else but America) are today calling execu-pains.
To get an idea of where neck pain actually comes from, clench your fist and visualize what’s going on inside. Muscles are hard, contracted, pressing against the skin. These muscles also push against nerves, and over time those nerves can become irritated. Different people express their tension in different parts of the body. Some get ulcers, some develop high blood pressure, some will get a heart attack in 20 years – and some get neck pains and tension headaches. In certain people there seems to be a kind of constitutional pre-disposition – a weakness – to muscular pain.
Often, the weakness stems from an injury (which itself could be stress-related tense muscles are less supple). One executive’s problems began when a nerve became pinched by a swollen disk while he was running. It healed, but slowly. He stopped exercising, which set off a spiraling degeneration: Lack of activity made him more susceptible to stress, which made his back feel worse, which kept him awake nights, which left him exhausted – making his back feel worse. Then the aches and pains began to spread. In severe cases, this kind of progression can lead to a chronic condition called fibromyalgia that lasts for months or years and virtually incapacitates people.
But it needn’t be so. These pains are very inter-related, and can be managed without expensive or time-consuming treatments. The best remedy is to relieve the stress itself, either by avoiding anxiety-provoking situations or by tapping a variety of relaxation techniques. But there are also physical ways to soothe pains where they live – in the muscles.
Prescription number one is exercise. In some cases, working the muscle that’s in pain ultimately can be the best thing for it, despite the usual wisdom of not doing something that hurts. (But don’t push pained muscles too far. It’s important that exercises be moderate and properly performed.) Stretching to relieve stiffness can help keep pains from ever hitting, but if you hurt in a particular area, you should perform a therapeutic stretch at least three times a day. Here’s a guide to the six most common execu-pains and the simplest, most effective tips for easing them.
Head And Neck Aches
They almost always go together. Common causes are cradling a phone with your shoulder or craning your neck to view a computer screen. That pain in the neck often radiates upward, creating a band tightness from the base of the skull or around the forehead.
- To soothe neck muscles: Sitting erect in a chair, let your chin fall gently to your chest, allowing the weight of your head to stretch muscles at the back of the neck. Keep the neck relaxed, and hold for 30 seconds. Next, lead your head back gently and look at the ceiling for 30 seconds. (Caution: Older men, 65 years and up, may feel faint or pass out when they do this stretch. Check with your doctor first.)
- Grip the bottom of the chair you’re sitting on with your left hand, so that your left shoulder pulls down slightly, and then lean your head gently to the right. Hold for 30 seconds. Repeat, opposite side.
This problem is typically characterized by pain on one side of the face shooting into the head. People under pressure have a tendency to clench and grind their teeth, which can lead to a jaw malady called temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder. But a lot of so-called TMJ problems are really due to muscular tension on one side of the jaw. That creates an imbalance, and the muscle acts as if there’s a problem in the joint itself.
- Open your mouth about half way and gently swivel the lower jaw right and left, moving it continuously for about 30 seconds.
- Bring your lower jaw forward and up in front of the upper jaw 10 times before a meal and another 10 times before bed.
- To keep from clenching your teeth, hold your jaw open slightly so upper and lower teeth are separated. Rest your tongue lightly against the roof of your mouth without pressing it against the front teeth. With practice, this may become habitual, reducing the urge to clench or grind.
Most shoulder soreness comes from irregular use of or physical abuse to muscles and tendons, but with stress, neck pains can irritate the nerves that lead to the arms, allowing pain to radiate to the shoulders.
- Bring your left arm in front of your body, across your chest. Hook your right arm under your left elbow and pull your left arm across the chest. Hold for 30 seconds and release. Repeat, opposite side.
- Raise your left arm straight up and grab the top or side of a door frame. Holding the frame, walk through the door until you feel muscles stretch gently. Hold for 30 seconds and release. Repeat with your right arm.
- Reach up to your side at a 45-degree angle, taking hold of a door frame with your left hand. Gently twist your body to the right, away from the raised arm. Hold for 30 seconds and release. Repeat with your right arm.
- Hold one arm straight out to the side, elbow bent at 90 degrees, as if taking an oath. Grab the side of a door frame with your raised hand and walk through the door until muscles stretch gently. Hold for 30 seconds. Release, then repeat with the other arm.
The back is particularly vulnerable, because muscles here do most of the work of supporting the body when you’re sitting. If you don’t have a good chair, you’re in for big trouble. But even if your company springs for the latest ergonomic wonder, you should change position a lot, stand when you’re on the phone and stretch frequently. When pain hits, if it’s mild, try these stretches. (For severe back pain, consult your doctor).
- Grab the doorknobs on both sides of an open door. Keeping your arms straight in front of you and your feet flat on the floor, squat as low as you can while pulling on the knobs. Hold for 30 seconds, and then stand up. Caution: Don’t do this exercise if you have bad knees.
- While sitting in your chair, grab one knee with both hands and bring it to your chest. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds. Repeat with the other knee.
Pain often starts in the lower back and shoots downward. Leg pains are often called sciatica, a condition that may signal serious problems from a herniated disk. However, more than 90 per cent of sciatica-like pain (usually in the buttocks and upper leg) caused by prolonged sitting. (Don’t get alarmed unless the pain extends below the knee or persists for several days.)
To stretch buttocks muscles, sit erect in a chair and cross your left leg, ankle-on-knee. Cup your left knee with your right hand. Simultaneously pull your knee and ankle toward your right shoulder until you feel muscles stretch slightly. Hold for 30 seconds and release. Repeat with your right leg.