Why do my neck and shoulders hurt after a cold day?

As I write this article it is a sunny November day, but a brisk 5 degrees Celsius puts a chill in the London air to remind us of the time of year. We can often get caught by surprise by a sudden cold day in any month of the year. This year’s mild autumn lured us into a false sense of security that we don’t need a thick coat yet, and then wham – winter is here. At The Massage Centre we often have an influx of clients seeking pain relief after a sudden drop in temperature. They’re often surprised to hear that the weather may have had played a contributing role in their unexpected visit to a massage clinic.

Is cold weather really related to physical pain?

There are a few common phrases in the English language that link the cold to the human body. “Brace yourself, winter is coming”, “I’m chilled to the bone” and “I caught a cold in my muscle” to name but a few. A cold snap can cause many people to hunch their shoulders whilst walking along the street, or tighten their hand in a fist shape waiting on the tube platform. It seems to be a natural reaction to feeling a chill, shivering or experiencing a cross wind.

Muscle guarding – what’s all the fuss about?

This natural hunching of the shoulders or body is referred to as muscle guarding in massage circles. We intuitively guard or protect that which we feel is vulnerable or threatened. A cold chill can spark a sensation in the skin’s nerve endings that the temperature is too low. The brain’s response is to guard the affected area by tensing the muscle to restrict blood-flow and slow down the loss of body heat. However, a contracted or tense muscle can become a tired muscle and combined with nutrient starvation from restricted blood flow it can sometimes go into spasm.

A pain in the neck

The symptom of neck pain or shoulder ache doesn’t always follow immediately. It can sometimes appear the next morning when you wake up feeling pain in your neck muscles. The over worked muscle will have stored up lactic and carbonic acids which couldn’t fully drain as a result of the muscle contraction. Your nerve endings will then start feeling the pinch from being bathed in acid and a cycle of pain becomes triggered – often effecting the surrounding muscles and tissues too. Restricted movement, dull aches, sharp nervy pain and soreness can be some of the common symptoms.

How massage helps muscle pain

Massage aims to break the pain cycle and return you to a pain free state. After a quick search on google for “massage in Chiswick” or a recommendation from your friend as the best place for massage near Turnham Green tube station, you may find yourself on one of our couches receiving a sports, deep tissue or remedial massage for pain relief. Our therapists are trained in techniques to help return your neck, shoulder or area of pain back to normal, pain free function. Massage will mobilise your painful soft tissues and muscles - this has two major benefits. Physical touch helps your brain to relocate the neurological pathway to the contracted muscle, your brain realises that the muscle is switched on even though you are lying down relaxed, and proceeds to switch it off. A relaxed muscle then allows blood to flow through it – bringing in fresh oxygen and nutrients and flushing out the painful acids. These benefits are a major step towards making a full recovery.

Tips to prevent muscle tightening

It’s great to have massage after developing muscle spasm from the cold weather. However, it’s even better to learn to prevent pain in the first place. Obviously wearing suitable clothing helps – it is amazing how ski gear can keep you warm in bitter conditions. Usually cold snaps, come out of the blue - the daytime sunshine can mask the true temperature – leaving you exposed as a soon as it clouds over. From experience, the only true prevention is awareness. It comes down to noticing the difference between muscle tension and looseness. Chronically tense muscles can stop relaying signals back to the brain. Muscles that are in a functional shape - massage can help with this - signal to us when they are being over used or tensing up. If you find it hard to tell the difference as to whether your muscle is tense or loose - try taking a deep breath. If your breathing is restricted, then you are holding some body part tense. Simply shaking the body part loose to relax it will help you to prevent pain and enable you to get back to the good things in life.

Advice is easily given but it can be difficult to learn new habits of awareness. I have often coached my clients on becoming aware of symptom causes, helped them to take charge of their body and sometimes to never feel the pain again. I have also helped many clients manage their pain when that was the best that could be achieved. Occasionally it can take over a year of monthly treatments before the penny drops and someone understands the cause of their repetitive cycle of pain, tension and stress. Learning is empowering and a lesson learned once can last a lifetime. If you would like a massage therapist to support you on a journey of discovery, mastery and ownership of your body, conditions or re-occurring pain, then please call us on 020 8166 8958 and we will endeavour to match you up with your therapist for life.

Written by Fran Kehoe, Practice Director


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