Noticing the terrible habits of others

IMGP3116I have never given the following advice, but here goes! I read a great article about the new posture challenges we face when using all our fancy technology – tablets, smart phones, etc. It’s a practical article with excellent photos of good and bad posture choices. It made me think about how we all want to have good posture, but don’t necessarily know how to get there.

Noticing the terrible habits of others is a clever way to begin. Haven’t we all seen people hunched over their cell phones tapping out a text? It’s so obvious when you’re watching someone else. “Wow! Don’t they realize how bad that must be for their backs?” Or, the other day a client was finishing a call in my reception area before her massage appointment. She had the phone propped between her ear and shoulder – right in front of me! That is sooooo hard on the neck muscles and joints. Yikes!

The problem seems to be that we are mentally engaged with the content of our technology to the point where our bodies and the alarms they may be trying to send us cannot get our attention. Sure, our necks might be sore and stiff at the end of the day, but we don’t necessarily make the connection to our specific actions during the day.

Next time you’re out, notice the terrible habits of others. Without the technology they have in their hands, try to assume the same posture and hold it for a few minutes. Really think about how your body feels in this position. Try taking some deep, slow breaths in this position. Scan your body head-to-toe and notice where you may be feeling discomfort. It can be a fun experiment. I can’t link to the article, but I’m happy to give you a photocopy if you’d like one. Just let me know.


Aim High…in all things

I can still remember the driver’s ed teacher yelling at me during my parallel parking lesson. I’m not sure what logic led him to believe that yelling at me would somehow assist me in overcoming my quite sufficient anxiety about parallel parking. Perhaps yelling had aided other students in being able to squeeze a car into a parking spot…but not me. To this day, parallel parking is not my favorite. I’d rather walk a block from a nice wide-open spot than stress over getting into a tighter one.

But some advice I learned in driver’s ed still rings in my head in a positive way and has useful applications behind the wheel and outside the car. One of my favorite slogans was “aim high in driving.” If you haven’t heard of this one, it’s encouragement refers to keeping your vision far ahead of your car so you can be aware of what is going on, especially on the freeway. Spotting an accident or even a dangerous driver 1/2 mile ahead can give you time to adjust, change lanes or take other precautions.

Aim High has come to mind recently in relation to other modern activities, like texting. Often I see someone texting with the phone in the lap. Texting is often done on the sly. We may not want to draw a lot of attention to the fact that we are texting. But this often necessitates a severe flexion of the neck.  I have been experimenting with texting up in the air, where my neck can be comfortable. Of course, this isn’t for those times when you probably shouldn’t be texting anyway. But when you can, try texting at a more comfortable angle.

Aim High came to mind on my walk this morning too. How often do we walk, examining the ground as if it held some secret of great magnitude? Experiment with a walk where you look to the end of the block, end of the trail or end of the meadow. You’ll have to look down on occasion to make sure you don’t step into anything unpleasant or miss a tripping hazard. But get your chin up and feel the ease in your neck. Add some arm swinging and really give your spine a treat. The weight of your arms swinging, even gently, can activate some of your deeper back muscles responsible for rotation and vertebral articulation. Movement is great for spine health and what could be easier than swinging one’s arms on an enjoyable walk?

Aim High leads me to daydreaming. I feel new things stirring and hope summer will afford me some time to dream big. Any big dreams on your mind these days?

P.S. The last bit of memorable advice from driver’s ed: Never try to merge onto the freeway while lighting a cigarette and changing the radio station because inevitably a bee will fly in your window at just that moment causing you to lose control of the car and crash. I can safely say I never do this.

One little change – using a book stand

Is reading a physically taxing endeavor? Most people would say no. However, many of the graduate school students I know are inclined to say “yes” as the years of heavy reading inflict damage on their bodies. I dedicate this post to all my grad student readers. May you survive the volumes of reading with health & happiness!

One little change can make reading an easier task on your body: using a reading stand to prop the book at an angle that’s easier on the neck. I’ve taken some photos of me reading. When you look at the pictures, pay particular attention to the angle of the neck.


In photo 1, my head is comfortably balanced on top of my spine. My head tends to be forward of optimal posture (true confession!), but this is a pretty neutral position given that underlying issue. Another thing I like about photo 1 is that my hands and arms are free to be in any comfortable position since the book stand is holding the book for me. That’s one less task during the day where my hands & arms need to be forward of centerline, my shoulder blades can be back on the back where they should be and my rib cage can be balanced in the center plane. (P.S. I love my IKEA chair – very nice support!)

Let’s take a look at photo 2. My head is farther forward over my rib cage, shoulder blades creeping off the back toward the front (technically called protraction), hands & arms engaged in the task of holding the book, feet or legs more likely to be crossed to achieve overall balance (not shown). This posture seems benign until you do it for hours. You would usually feel the long-term effects of this posture as strain in the upper back and neck muscles.

And finally photo 3. I look comfy on the couch, don’t I? However, my neck is at a severe angle, flexed forward. Shoulders are all akimbo. My left arm is supporting a lot of weight. If we had X-ray vision, we would see my spine is contorted laterally. I wouldn’t last long in this position. Mind you, changing positions often can be good for gobs of reading, but another strategy is to find a posture-neutral or posture-supportive position and then take movement breaks where you truly engage your body in a range of motion for a body “snack break.” Perhaps pick up a hula hoop during your reading break or do the limbo to some groovy music.

A book stand can be as simple as a plastic cookbook stand (photo 1). There are also products for sale like this from Amazon. (By the way, if you think you might want to buy something like this from Amazon, or any other product from Amazon, consider clicking over to my community health blog and starting with a click on my Amazon carousel. If you make a purchase, I’ll get a little kick-back which helps offset the cost of running that blog. Thanks!)

I’ll end with a quote from Family Circle’s March 2009 issue which got me thinking about this topic years ago. “‘Slumping in a chair crowds your internal organs, resulting in sluggish digestion that can lead to weight gain,’ says celebrity Pilates instructor Brooke Siler. Make sure to keep your waist long by imagining there’s a vertical toothpick in the space between the bottom of your ribs and the top of your hips.” Toothpicks also available on Amazon!?!

Hot & cold

If you’ve been a client of mine for any length of time you’ve probably heard me share one of my favorite tricks for loosening up tight muscles. The use of heat and ice can do wonders for overworked muscles. Hot packs and ice packs are relatively cheap. The only other things you need are some time and common sense. Here’s how it works for the neck/shoulder muscles.

Find something you can heat like this crescent-shaped neck wrap. The kind I like best is sold here. You don’t have to be fancy, though. Filling a tube sock with rice can work great also. Place it around your neck and leave it there for about 12-15 minutes or until you feel it cool down. If you purchase a product, it will come with heating directions. If you’re using rice in a sock, heat in the microwave in 30 seconds increments until it’s hot. Be careful you don’t get your heat pack so hot it burns you (this is the common sense ingredient).

The heat dilates the blood vessels in the area, bringing fresh, oxygenated blood to the tired, overworked muscles. The fresh blood brings nutrients to the area and whisks away waste products. Next, you’ll switch to cold, which constricts the blood vessels. In the end you’ll want to alternate between hot and cold 3-5 times for maximum benefit. The dilating and constricting of the blood vessels manually pumps blood through the area, reviving it and restoring health to the tissue.

Ice packs come in all shapes and sizes. Here I’m modeling a long, flexible ice pack. Since it doesn’t wrap around the neck, I’m holding it, which is not ideal. I like to use smaller flexible ice packs and sit back in a comfortable chair or lie down so that the ice pack stays in place. Be careful to place something between your skin and the ice or ice pack so that you don’t get a burn. Again, fanciness is not required. Packs of frozen peas work really well too. Have the ice in place for 8-12 minutes.

In this post I’m showing neck/shoulder care, but the same strategy can work for any muscle group. You can also add some massage after the heat segments to loosen up the muscles more. You can do this yourself or have someone massage the targeted muscles. An additional benefit of the heat is that is softens the connective tissue surrounding the muscles and makes the area more pliable.

Write to me if you have any questions. Remember the common sense piece. And, lastly, I’m not a doctor; this is not medical advice; you may employ this self-care strategy at your own risk. Thanks for reading!

Massage for cyclists

Last night I had fun giving a couple a massage lesson. This couple enjoys cycling and wanted some home-care strategies to manage the toll cycling takes on the body, especially the legs.

Massage has a lot to offer cyclists. Here are some highlights:

  • Flushing the quads & hamstrings. A variety of long, deep, & rapid strokes on both quads (front of leg) and hamstrings (back of legs) push a lot of blood through these muscles which have been working hard pumping and pulling on those pedals. Fresh blood brings oxygen and carries away the metabolic waste products of exercise.
  • Stretching the IT band. You’ll find your iliotibial (IT) bands on the outside of each leg. They connect the knee and hip. The IT band is a long tendon and when it gets overly tight, as it can with cycling and running, it can pull on either the knee or hip and produce pain. Long, firm strokes to stretch the IT band help keep pain at bay and the IT band healthy.
  • Foot and calf care. Detailed work on the bottom surface of the foot relieves pain from the repetitive nature of cycling. Loosening the plantar fascia helps keep the whole back line of the body from tightening up (from foot to calf to hamstring to low back!). Calves need some extra TLC to flush out their metabolic waste products and massage offers a perfect venue.
  • Neck care. Ooh, that racing position is hard on the neck! It’s especially taxing on the splenius capitis. You don’t need to know the fancy Latin names of the neck muscles to know that they hurt! Maybe if cycling was the only thing we did that strained the neck, we’d be fine. But most of us also work on computers, drive, etc. and our necks need some attention to stay healthy.

If you’d ever like to have a massage lesson and learn some of these massage techniques for home-care, please let me know. It’s fun for me to show people something new and useful for keeping them healthy for the activities they enjoy. A massage lesson can be tailored to a trio, pair or individual.

Is there a sport or actvity that you’d like me to address as to how massage can provide specific benefit? Let me know in the comments and I”ll tackle it in an upcoming post.

the end of the line: suboccipitals

In my last post I confessed that I have some tight muscles trying to get my attention. One of these groups of muscles is called the suboccipitals. As I’ve massaged hundreds of people’s suboccipital muscles, I’ve nicknamed them the end of the line. If all other muscles get tired and fatigued, these little workhorses will keep your head up.

They are tiny, but mighty. The 8 individual muscles form a triangle of sorts at the base of the skull (4 on each side).

Muscle Mapquest: take your hands and place them behind your head at the base (where head meets neck). Deep under layers of skin and muscle, your suboccipitals are hard at work. They connect the base of the head (the occiput bone) to the first & second vertebrae, and the first vertebra to the second vertebra. If you are lying down, it’s easier to sink your fingers in deep enough to feel them. If you’re sitting or standing, it’s hard to penetrate the more superficial muscles to feel these muscles distinctly because all the muscles are engaged and active.

Little muscles, big names: What they lack in size, they make up for in their super long names: rectus capitis posterior major (extends & rotates head), rectus capitis posterior minor (extends head), obliquus capitis inferior (rotates first vertebra), oliquus capitis superior (extends & bends head laterally).

Why they hurt: One can argue that the muscles that extend the head (this means to tip the head back), also must eccentrically contract to hold the head in place when we are bending forward or flexing the head. I would argue that this is why they get fatigued, sore and cranky! Our heads are heavy and often forward of where they should be. Because the suboccipitals are postural muscles they tend to become hypertonic (super tight) when they are overused or fatigued (Orthopedic Massage, Lowe 2009 p. 222). “Suboccipital trigger points cause pain that feels like it’s inside the head, extending from the back of the head to the eye and forehead.” (The Trigger Point Therapy Handbook, Davies 2004 p. 62)

Massage care and self-care: If you’re due for a massage and you think these are tight, ask your therapist (hopefully that’s me!) to devote some extra time to these workhorses. Here are some tips to self-massage them. Lie down on your back without a pillow. If you can heat the muscles first with some kind of heating pad, that will enhance your efforts. After heating them for about 5 minutes, scoop your hands under your head. You can press into the muscle bundle right at the base of the skull. You can tilt the head so that pressure is applied to one side for 30 seconds and then the other side for 30 seconds. Take a break and simply rest your head on the bed or floor. If you need a small support under your neck, use a rolled up hand towel. Resume massaging by gliding fingers from the base of the skull towards the neck. Glide up and down with a satisfying amount of pressure applied. You can push your fingers into the muscles from both left and right sides toward the vertebrae in the center. Rest. Tuck your chin, rotate your head side to side. Finish with more heat or try a few minutes resting on a flexible ice pack. Ice can be very soothing to muscles. These are great muscles, so let’s take good care of them! Let me know if you have any questions. 626-660-6856

receiving the advice I give, a trip to the dentist

It all started with a tooth ache. Which subsided, thankfully. I headed into the dentist to explore the subsided pain. After some careful investigation, the very nice dentist, gently, suggested I might be experiencing something else. Pain. Hypertoned muscles in the neck, head and face. And perhaps I clench my teeth when I’m working hard to help other people relax.

True confession. I could hide this little story; I’m sure none of you would know. But I think it’s really instructive of what I see quite often. With me as the “patient” I can offer you insights of what I’ll be doing to help decrease my pain and muscle tension. Hopefully there might be something that you can glean from my confession.

  • Use heat & ice. Heat the neck & shoulders to bring fresh blood to these fatigued muscles. If I massage the muscles, using heat is a great first step. A muscle pumped full of blood through dilated blood vessels is much more receptive to massage. Ice constricts blood vessels and soothes muscles, especially after deep massage. Used together heat & cold can manually flush lots of blood through a troublesome muscle group.
  • Get massage – quick! I had a session scheduled last week that had to move to next week. I scheduled another one on Friday with a friend I trade with. 2 in 1 week! Yes, when things get really tight you can gain more from frequent massage, even if it’s 2 shorter sessions. Sounds decadent, but to me it’s just smart. If I can get back on top of this tension, I can go back to my regularly scheduled massages. Sometimes a quick chair massage at Whole Foods can do wonders.
  • Self-massage. I have lots of tricks to get at the muscles that are complaining. For the average person, having a visual picture of where the muscle is can help you massage it more accurately. Short and frequent self-massage is a good strategy. The muscles I’ll be targeting are: suboccipitals, temporalis, masseter, SCMs and trapezius. It’s hard to describe self-massage techniques in writing. It’s very easy to show. If you’re curious, please ask me and I’ll be more than happy to show you some neat (and free!) tricks.
  • Ease up at work. Although I often joke that I should be magically immune from muscle tension, I’m not. With a job where I bend over people for an hour at a time, I have the particular challenge of combating a forward-head posture. I’ve recently heard that for every inch you carry your head forward of mid-line, you need to exert an extra 5 lbs. of strength. This work falls to the muscles on the back of the head, neck and upper back. So…I think a lighter workload for a couple of weeks would be a good idea.
  • Pay attention! The dentist asked if I grind my teeth while I sleep. I don’t believe I do. He than asked if I might clench my teeth while I work – working hard to muscle into someone else’s tight muscles. Now that’s something to consider. Since his suggestion, I have been paying attention while I work to how tight my jaw feels. I think this might be an area where I could improve. As I have noticed tightness in my jaw or face, I have closed my eyes, opened my jaw wide like in a yawn, and moved my jaw side to side. At each of these 3 steps I feel tension drain out of my face. Then I can draw my attention to my shoulders or other areas that are “trying to hard.”

Sometimes it can be hard to receive the same advice you give. But in this case, I was more amused than anything else. How ironic! And kudos to Dr. Kanda for delivering the news in such a gentle, easy-to-respond kind of way.