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10 habits that may be causing your neck and shoulder pain

Tracy Woolrich's picture
While driving make sure your hands are resting towards the bottom of the wheel.

The neck and shoulder areas are one of the most used parts of your body. The overuse and improper support of the muscles in this region can have an impact in more ways than one. Read on to see how to recognize what you may be doing wrong and how to improve get back on track.


The neck and shoulder area of your body share many muscles that also support your joints and vertebra. One of the largest and frequently stressed areas is your trapezius.


This muscle tends to “trap” your poor posture, repetitive movements and general stress. It is a very large muscle area that attaches to your vertebral column near your neck and shoulders. The trapezius supports the shoulder as well as the neck whereas the shoulder muscles only support the shoulder.

Most people are unaware that there are three different divisions of the trapezius muscle. The pain for the three different areas is very distinct. The three areas are the upper, middle and lower.

The upper trapezius is responsible for allowing you to tilt your head back and look upward as well as flex your neck side to side.

The middle trapezius is responsible for moving your scapula (back shoulder bone) inward and upward closer to your body and allows for arm movement.

The lower trapezius also works in rotation of the scapula however performs several different movements.

Symptoms of muscle stress
The upper trapezius may cause pain into the head along the back and side of your neck and into the head. It may also extend to side of your jaw, side of your head, temple and behind the eye.

The middle trapezius muscles have numerous trigger points that if innervated may cause a burning type pain all long the spine from your 7th cervical vertebrae in your neck down to your 3rd thoracic vertebrae. (On a side note there is an area within the middle traps that can cause chills in your arms and even thighs if stimulated. I have had this occur during massage sessions. I never knew why until recently.)

The lower trapezius area has trigger points that can refer pain from the top of your shoulder all the way up to the back of your skull.

It is easy to see how an inflamed trapezius muscle may cause various complaints including:

  • Headaches
  • Neck pain
  • TMJ pain
  • Stiff neck
  • Burning pain in shoulders/arms
  • Numbness in arms
  • Bursitis

Supporting characters
Just like the children’s nursery rhyme Dry Bones, muscles are also interconnected and depend upon each other for proper movement. The shoulder muscles which are pivotal for the movement of your arms are much smaller than the trapezius. Because they are smaller they receive less nutrition and often weaken and are injured before the trapezius. However once your shoulder muscles are weakened and do not support your shoulder joint properly your trapezius is depended upon to help out. This overworks it resulting in pain in the neck.

This will often end with a trip to the doctor and sometimes an improper diagnosis of cervical spondylosis. From there CT scans, an MRI, painkillers and an orthopaedic surgical consult may be ordered. It is easy to see how this snowballs.

Prevention or early treatment is crucial. If left unrecognized, muscle stress in the neck, shoulders and trapezius may indeed lead to prolapsed discs and eventually Cervical spondylosis.


Trigger points may be activated due to trauma such as whiplash or fall. Make sure that you seek medical attention such as chiropractic care, physical therapy with ultrasound and exercises or massage.

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It is not just injury that causes pain. It can be your activities of daily living that are slowly causing wear and tear on your shoulders and trapezius muscles.

Ten habits that could be causing your pain

1. Using a cane that is an improper height can cause strain on your traps. Make sure you are properly fitted for your height. Picking up a used cane at a flea market or a unique one at a festival may do more harm than good if it is too short.

2. Using your shoulder to support your phone while talking and using your hands is a big cause of injury to your traps. Use the speaker phone or invest in a headset to reduce the stress.

3. Poor ergonomics at your work station such as a high keyboard or chair arm rests that are too high. Make sure that your arms are level and not reaching up towards the keyboard. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Musculoskeletal Disorders, in 2011 the industries that reported the highest levels of injuries included health care, transportation and warehousing, retail and wholesale trade and construction. These numbers are important as it accounted for 33% of all worker injury and illness cases in 2011.

4. Long hours at a computer in general along with prolonged use of clicking on a mouse can tighten also your traps. Remember to take a break every 30 minutes to stretch. A good trick is to set a timer a few feet away from you that will go off every 30 minutes making you get up and reset it. You can stretch your arms and neck on the way there.

Here is a video from Mayo Clinic that is less than 2 minutes that shows you stretches you can do to help.

5. Sewing, knitting or crocheting without your arms being supported. Just like keyboarding, any activity where your arms and shoulders are un supported can cause problems.

6. Wearing a bra that is too tight. Make sure that your bras are properly fitted and that the straps are not too tight. Going to a store that professionally fits you is a good investment. Don’t forget to be refitted if you gain or lose weight.

7.. Carrying a heavy purse, backpack or coat over your arm. If you carry a purse on your shoulder try placing the strap across your body instead of over your shoulder.

8. Sleeping on the back with the head rotated to one side can cause an issue. Also don’t sleep on your stomach. This causes you to overextend your neck to the side. Sleep on your side with a proper supporting pillow.

9. Emotional distress. Pay close attention to where you carry your shoulders during times of stress. I for one will realize that my shoulders will come up higher and higher towards my ears as the day goes on at work. I am definitely one that carries my stress in my shoulders. This in turn will increase the chances of me having a tension headache.

10. Long hours driving a vehicle with the hands high on the steering wheel. When driving, make sure your hands are resting towards the bottom of the wheel with your palms downwards instead of at the top. This is the opposite to how most of us were taught.


OSHA ergonomics
OSHA work stations



I have been having pains on my left shoulder and stiffness up to the neck and back pains through the spine. I had an C-Spine X-ray which shows: There is early Osterophytosis Conclusion : Early C-Spinespondylosis. This was done on 04th August, 2014 I was advise to attend 10 sessions of physical therapy which i did and also chiropratic 6 sessions. The pain ceased but two days ago the pain moved from left side to the right side from the neck to the head. Yesterday i went for physical therapy and was give a support which i should be wearing around my neck. My question is: Am i doing the right thing on visiting the Physical therapy and Chiropratic? Is there a way we can sort it out once and for all? Kindly advise me am in bad pain. Thanks Anne
Hi, I am a bowler and I been having terrible pains about half way up my fore arm (elbow), sometimes it I have aproblem straightining my arm all the way. Also my bicep and shoulder hurts, is there anything that you can advise for this issue? Thanking you in advance, Joe
Hi This is Prasana from India, I drive a Right handed drive vehicle and rest my right arm in the car window while driving. I get severe pain in the top of the left shoulder. What is the cause and remedy
I have the same issue..
I have severe and persistent pain in the centre of my left trapesious. I take paracetemol osteo and ibuprofen regularly for it. But still get little relief.
I bought my first car 8 months ago (a Porsche) and rest my left hand in the left window (we drive on the right hand side). I get pain in the left shoulder towards the back/dorsal side. Anybody know what's happening ?
I am a cashier and lift heavy things I had a painful shoulder blade 4. 3 weeks pain is gone but now I have tingling and burning in my left shoulder and neck what can I do 2 stop it
neck and shoulder ache
I have chills on my left side of my back,then slowly travels all over my back. I also have problems with my thighs and calfs feeling cold. My left side of mybody just feels different.I have so many kind of symtoms I can't sleep thinking there's somthing serious wrong with me. Forgot to mention always feeling dizzy and lightheaded. Thanks
Several years ago I had terrible pain in my right arm (between the shoulder and the elbow), so bad that it would wake me at night and make work unbearable. I went to a doctor, after a couple xrays she stated that my 7th vertebra was too close to the other. I never followed up, I spent 8 hrs a day on the computer and that arm was the one I used for the mouse, after quitting that job my arm got 100% better. Now I am having neck pain, burning sensation between shoulder blades, tingling in arms depending on what way I turn, bad headaches in the back of my head just above my neck and my left jaw will ache????? Is this that darn vertebra causing trouble????
Colleen, yes, spine problems in the neck and upper back can cause symptoms that can extend down the arm and even in your hands. But there could also be other problems that are more serious. It would be worth following up with your doctor. I am sure this is interfering with your lifestyle, sleep and happiness. Knowing how to manage early could prevent worsening problems and prevent complications. You really do want to know what is causing your symptoms for certain. Hoping you feel better soon.
First i have otomycosis.after treatment of that i feel heayness behind the ear and neck up 1.5 months. now After that i feel burning like sensation left side behind the ear shoulder and neck form last one month.some time its gone.but mostly its there. I use methcobine 500 mg and gabica 100 mg.but no recovery. Please tel mel what is that actually.is that a serious issue
I like the suggestions for correcting habits that may be causing pain, especially #9 as most of the time we don't think about how our emotional state affects us physically! I would like to point out about the driving tip on #10, that we were taught how to hold the wheel for safety reasons, not ergonomic ones. At "10 and 2" (or something close to that) you have the most control over your vehicle -- please keep that in mind, though comfort and relaxation is important to safety, too!
i was diagnosed with radiculitis 4 months ago. I attended pt for 4 months and found i have due aching pain in my trapezius muscles instead. I also haas had a sharp pain 2 or 3 times in my right breast and now will be checked to rule out breast cancer..same symptoms. Should I worry.
For many years I've been trying to figure out my headaches. Tons of tests and waiting on an MRI result of my brain but I think I have figured it out. 2 years ago no had neck surgery, no relief but we knew it wasn't the cause of my headaches. Now epidural to relieve my stenosis of the spine. But my left arm got worse as well as my neck and headaches. Tonight my husband massaged the area where I get sore and all of a sudden my arm felt like it was asleep and my neck hurt as well as some pain in my right shoulder. It has to be my Trapevius muscle. It's all coming together now and makes since they're all connected. I don't have a degree buy I believe this is it. Don't sit by idly when you have anything wrong with your body! Keep on it till you get an answer!!!
My 42 year old daughter has this. There is burning around her left eye, down her left arm, numbness in left hand, neck pain...no real answers. Radiculopathy has been DX in the cervical area but PT has never helped. No idea who to see now.
I was doing something off laptop for like more the 4 hours and now in the back/ side area of left side of the neck to the back of shoulder hurts when I'm in that position for a long time. What can I do?
I care for my bedbound mom. I have to pull her up in the bed every 2hours. Now I have consistent neck, arm pain, and tingling in the fingers. It is on the left side. Should I worry? Is it due to the repetitive movement? Thank You
Thanks for this article. I suffered a bulging disc 8 years ago from poor sleeping habits and..well that went away...but I've been fighting severe muscle spasms, trigger point flare ups and basically torticolis ever since. The incidents come periodically and I can't roll over for hours and end up in the ER when I can sit up. I've had MRI, CAT, a chiro, two Physical Therapists and a few doctors look at me and fail to figure out the problem. I've been harassing over my daily routines trying to find a cause and coming up short. I'm at a neurologist now who literally is suggesting mild anxiety but that doesn't feel right. Is there such a thing as chronic spasming? Thanks!
my right shoulder and my neck heart when I move it are if I couf it hearts bad
carrying a carry on shoulder bag on trip now I'm home and my neck when turning side to side and scapula possibly ache so bad on right side.