Take your elbow out to the side. Lovely. Now check in a mirror and see if the shoulder blade also goes up. Does it?
Now, put the elbow and the shoulder blade back down and take your elbow out to the side without taking your shoulder blade up with it. How? By thinking "let shoulder blade gently down as I move my elbow out." And/or by resting your opposite hand between your shoulder and your neck.
Because arm movement should happen mostly at the shoulder joint and not so much between the shoulder and the neck. For long-term shoulder and neck health, it is well worth becoming aware of the difference.
The shoulder joint is where the upper arm bone (humerus) articulates on a small section of the shoulder blade (scapula) (see left photo below).
Our shoulders become stiff because we move more between the shoulder and the neck than we realise. Modern living (dominated by screens, sitting, driving, not walking with reciprocal arm swing and… stress!!) gives us shoulders and arms that don’t move much at all and when they do, without much variety.
To compensate for our lack of shoulder mobility, we unconsciously shift our ribcage up and out and hike our shoulder blades to give us the illusion of shoulder opening, which is fine, until our shoulder tension accumulates so much that we find ourselves with a shoulder impingement issue or chronic neck stiffness or tension headaches.
The shoulder hike (or scapula elevation) is created by the upper trapezius muscle and the levator scapulae muscle as well as the rhomboids (minor and major), which run between the spine and the shoulder blade.
My preferred solution to this habit of wearing our shoulders as earrings is:
1) Body awareness, noticing our shoulder(s) creeping up in the situations highlighted below.
2) Compassionate self-talk: Hello shoulder blade muscles. Thank you for all you’ve done. Time for a break now.
3) Let our shoulder(s) gently down as we notice. Take a deep breath in and a slow breath out with a sense of letting go.
Extra tip: It can help to enlist the help of a willing friend or family member, to keep an eye on each other's movement habit.
Here are a few common situations when one shoulder may well creep up towards our ear:
Drinking coffee/tea or other beverage.
Does this look familiar?
Who is doing all the work? Neck muscles (left picture) or arm or shoulder/arm muscles (right picture)?
Talking on the phone.
Try again sans shoulder hike?
Other examples: Carrying a bag. Brushing teeth. Driving. Writing. Typing. Reaching up to a high shelf. Eating. When stressed or cold or tired. When exercising beyond our body's capacity.
When the way we carry out your daily activities is part of why our shoulders are getting increasingly tense and stiff, becoming aware of our movement habits is an essential step towards long-term mobility, strength and health.
Ideally, we would address shoulder tension by becoming aware of our daily habits, by cultivating self-compassion and by consciously releasing tension with the breath, instead of using vigorous treatments to get us quickly out of pain... until the next time tension accumulates to the point of pain. If this approach resonates with you, give it a try and let me know if it works for you too!