Stiff shoulders? Here’s why and what you can do about it

May 1st, 2014






“And anytime you feel the pain, hey Jude, refrain

Don’t carry the world upon your shoulders”[1]



carrying a burden



Tight shoulders are probably the most commonly reported symptom of stress or physical discomfort. While it is not a serious medical issue it nevertheless inconveniences millions of people every day.



Most people usually explain it away as just stress. Stress is a coverall word concealing a multitude of ills. There are several mechanisms at work that might shed some light about how our particular shoulder tension is forming.




Even physical reasons aren’t always physical



While it may be easy to understand having tight, sore shoulders after a bout of heavy lifting or unaccustomed physical activity the biggest physical cause of tight shoulders is posture – and even this does not always have a physical cause.



In many energy therapies the center of the chest (and the corresponding areas between the shoulder blades on the back) is considered the seat of our emotions. It is under the control of the heart and heart guardian energy systems. A slumping posture can be an unconscious response to emotional vulnerability where we carry old, emotional wounds.



In these cases, to just massage the shoulders will not fundamentally change this response. On the contrary, by relaxing the shoulders the chest/emotional center is exposed. Our unconscious reflex will be to re-establish the protective, raised shoulder posture.




Going for the throat



Another area to cause a reflex, protective raising and tensing of the shoulders is the throat. There is a reason why animals attack the throat when trying to kill their prey in the quickest way possible.



There are 4 structures in the throat area that, if damaged enough, will cause our death.


  • The windpipe (trachea)
  • The jugular vein
  • The carotid artery
  • The spinal cord



While most of the civilized world may no longer live with such day to day danger we still have primitive, unconscious reflexes that have this interpretation of the world. The quickest response is to lower the chin and raise the shoulders.



The trouble with this strategy is that, while it may be useful in acute situations – say, in a boxing match – it is a poor choice over time. Most of us can also feel hunted from time to time but usually by less tangible threats – like work deadlines, personal conflicts or money worries. Our bodies still respond with this primitive and perhaps well meaning but inappropriate reflex.



The throat is also our area of vocal expression. It gives a voice to what is in our heart. When we repress expression we can become blocked in the throat area. This can result in anything from chronic throat infections, to a stiff neck and headaches – even thyroid gland issues.[2]




Meandering meridians


© Shizuto Masunaga

© Shizuto Masunaga


In traditional Chinese medicine the shoulder area is serviced primarily by the gall bladder, small intestine, lung and colon meridians.



The gall bladder meridian and conflict.


There have been several blogs about this so I will refer you to them here. When our Minister of Justice (the Confucian title afforded this energy system) becomes embroilded in conflict the energy of this meridian becomes stagnated and the shoulders raise and contract.



Timidity and hesitation instead of decisiveness and action combined with a self-critical inner dialogue are some of the emotional and behavioral outcomes for imbalance in this meridian.



The Small Intestine meridian – the devil is in the details



This meridian partners the heart energy system and deals with sorting the minutiae of digestion. At an emotional level where the heart feels the small intestine thinks by chewing things over.



Over thinking can sometimes be an attempt to avoid or control uncomfortable emotions by raising the energy from the heart to the head. Unfortunately, it usually takes the shoulders with it.



The Lung and Colon meridians



This yin-yang pairing affect the chest/shoulder tie in. They deal with the release of things – both physical and emotional – that are no longer useful to us. Carrying with us old burdens can reflect in the posture with rounded and raised shoulders.


Poor breathing technique only complicates this issue and leads not only to raised shoulders but a collapsed chest and bloated lower abdomen. Pain and tightness in the shoulders, constipation, dull frontal headaches and lethargy are some of the possible outcomes from this energy imbalance.




Shoulda, woulda, coulda


Marianne Rosen[3] was fond of calling the shoulders ‘shouldas’. She saw the correlation between tension in the shoulders and the emotions of regret, indecisiveness and shouldering responsibility for things we have (or no longer have) any power to effect.



Beating ourselves up about things over which we have no control is a self destructive recipe for physical and mental disease, not just tight shoulders.





 Choosing sides


At a symbolic level right shoulder problems are connected to dealing with outer conflicts and frustrations.  In traditional Chinese medicine it is ruled by the liver and gallbladder energy systems which we have already covered.

The left shoulder is linked to our inner emotional life. They may be issues we take with us through time and are not necessarily connected to current events. Chinese medicine links this with the heart energy.



A vision thing


We have already mentioned the role of posture from an emotional standpoint. It can also be affected by the strength of our vision – or at least our visual habits.


Our eyes are quite simple structures and were never suited to long periods of tunnel vision focusing like reading, computer work and squinting down at mobile gadgets.


artist unknown

artist unknown



Hold out your thumb at arm’s length in front of you. Focus on your thumbnail. This is about the area we can focus on at any one time. Our brain just renders the surrounding visual space and tells us we have it covered visually. We don’t.


Up to very recently in our genetic history our survival instincts have been best served by enhanced peripheral and distance vision more than a near focus on a few ink marks on a page let alone squinting at a reflective, backlit screen made up of tiny pixels.


The postural compensation for this unnatural stress to the vision is to crane the neck forward while raising and rounding the shoulders. Such a posture does no favors to our visual cortex either (which lies inside the posterior base of the skull) – an area pinched and tense when we adopt the ‘computer posture’.



You got to move it, move it!



bear move it



If we haven’t got time to take conscious care of our body now we will have to make time to get sick not too far in the future. From the standpoint of the physical body movement is life. Stillness is stagnation and death. If we want to bring life quality back to an area that has stagnated, we have to move it. Here are a few tips.



  • Rolling on a ‘Pilates roll’. This will open both the shoulder girdle and the chest area.
  • Mobilizing the whole shoulder area. Even if you do not understand Swedish, the video below, by colleague Claes Wallenberg, is easy to follow.[4]



  • Stretching, hanging and deep breathing. Hanging by the hands from an overhead bar or tree branch forces the diaphragm, intercostal and stomach muscles to stretch and open with the chest. Breathing via the downward stretch of the diaphragm instead of raising the shoulders and breathing shallowly in the upper chest will benefit our health in general, not just our shoulders.
  • Try a tai chi, chi gong or yoga class and learn a more conscious relationship with the body – and the chi-software that drives it.
  • At the end of a shower, turn up the heat and let the head fall to one side for a few minutes while the water pulses over the trapezius/shoulder area of the opposite side. Repeat in the other direction.
  • Get regular massage/bodywork/energy work treatment before tension builds up too much. Prevention is always the more intelligent option than desperately searching for a cure when things have tipped out of balance.


If we see the sense in giving our car a regular service instead of driving it until the red warning lights are flashing and smoke is billowing out from the motor we will see the sense (not to mention the dollars) of regular health treatments.



Well, that should be enough to be going on with for this week at least.




Till we can meet the challenge of another Monday with a relaxed shrug of the shoulders,



[1] ‘Hey Jude’. Lennon-McCartney. 1968 Parlophone records.

[2] Click here for more on the thyroid and the many and varied reasons for thyroid imbalance. (It’s a three part series).

[3] The founder of Rosen therapy which focuses on the link between emotional issues and bodily tensions

[4] For more from Claes direct your browser to his website.



© Jeremy Halpin all rights reserved. All images are the author’s own unless otherwise indicated or if the original source is unknown at the time of writing. Soundcloud photo courtesy of David Decuigniére. You can subscribe to this blog by clicking the button in the bottom right hand corner of the page – or share it on the social media of your choice. If you have any wishes or questions regarding subjects to be discussed on this blog use the contact information below. Jeremy is also available for seminars, lectures and personal consultation:

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