How to not shrug all the time

Nowadays, phones and computers are inevitable in our everyday lives. People are more aware of body posture during long-term usage of the technology products. “Shrugging” is the most significant and highly discussed body misalignment.

We all know that shrugging lead to many problems such as, tight neck muscles, breathing problems, cervical joint motion limitation.

There are many exercises and stretching techniques on the net to teach you how to correct the habit of “shrugging”. You may experience the short term effect from those exercises, but cannot permanently solve the shrugging problem.

Here are some common advices from others when you have a tight neck

The thing is, you never know exactly when are you shrugging your shoulders. It just happens naturally and unconsciously.

This is a good advice for those with short-term muscle tightness. Stretching is beneficial for increasing muscle flexibility and local blood flow, which would relax the neck. However, the problem of shrugging is chronic for many people. Stretching may not be enough to make the effect last longer.

Why can’t I stop shrugging my shoulders?

Normally, shrugging is combined with other upper limb motions during tasks and should not be avoided. For example, carrying a heavy weight, swimming, typing and over-head sports.
However, when the main proportion of the task is done by shrugging (which is commonly seen in frozen shoulder patients), the risk of injury is high and should be corrected immediately.

Below are some major reasons to shrugging.

The muscle cannot consciously contract itself unless the brain tells it to. When you shrug habitually, there are too much signals from the brain to the neck and shoulder muscles. When the brain sends the wrong program to the peripheral muscles, the sequence and frequency of muscle activation may be altered. This altered muscle activity may be more energy consuming.

When you are dealing with pain, you may find some posture that are not as painful/tiresome as the other. The brain signals the body to remain in the painless posture which is harmful to the muscles and joints. When you are used to the incorrect signals from the brain, shrugging can become a habit and turn into a compensatory movement.

The brain makes minor corrections to the body from time to time to produce the best posture/ movements. This is done by “feedforward” and “feedback” mechanisms of the brain. To complete a task, the brain pass down signals from previous experiences (feedforward). When the task is not as easy as expected, the brain receives signal from peripheral receptors and fires more muscle into work (feedback).

Here is an actual example of feedforward and feedback mechanism:

When you are in a bus, your body produce tension to prevent you from falling, the amount of tension is from previous established motor programs (feedforward). When the bus goes to a sudden stop, the receptors on the foot and legs will signal the brain to give more tension to the calf muscles to resist bus deceleration (feedback).

Photo by Vladislav Muslakov on Unsplash

If your body is in a fatigue state, the mechanisms of feedforward and feedback will be disrupted. The movement quality and sequence are changed, leading to compensations. In many cases, shrugging is a consequence of fatigue.

How to not shrug?

  1. Prevent fatigue

The body fatigues during repetitive movements, breaks are essential to prevent fatigue. Sleeping, stretches and 5-minute exercises are great examples of taking a break.

Check out my previous article: Office turtle neck syndrome. The article discusses about breaks during office working.

2. Stretches

Whole-body stretches are great ways to relax your muscles and activate the inhibited muscles. During prolonged sitting, the abdominal muscles are crunched up and can be hard to maintain a good core for the body. Compensations like shrugging may come to you. Stretching out the abdominal muscles brings back the core tension and let you work for longer hours.

Be in mind that local neck stretches only gives the neck muscles a short-term relaxing effect. On the other hand, whole body stretches (like yoga), resets the body and mind all together.

3. Body awareness reeducation

When the body awareness goes wrong, the brain looses track of direction. By reeducating the body proprioception, prevents the brain from giving false signals to the muscles and joints.
Do you have the experience that when you look at the mirror with your most natural position and it turns out crooked? This means the position sense needs adjustment.

Proprioception training is an essential part of rehab, focusing on the perception of correct body position. That way it will help correcting bad postures and bad habits.

A take home message to my readers: train the brain before working on the muscle.

References:

Kobesova A, Kolar P. Developmental kinesiology: three levels of motor control in the assessment and treatment of the motor system. J Bodyw Mov Ther. 2014;18(1):23–33.

Monjo F, Terrier R, Forestier N. Muscle fatigue as an investigative tool in motor control: A review with new insights on internal models and posture-movement coordination. Hum Mov Sci. 2015;44:225–33.

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物理治療師 女性運動與姿勢矯正 physiotherapist, MS, CES