The Surprising Source of Shoulder Pain

Would you believe it if I told you that the secret to relieving shoulder pain is in your ankles? It may like a kooky idea, but it is an idea grounded in the mechanics of our bodies.

Most people think that is logical to assume that the source of shoulder pain has something to do with how you sit or maybe how you hold your head. Perhaps if your posture is well-aligned you might hurt less, but you might be smarter to look at why you are holding your head and neck in such a way that makes your shoulders hurt.  It has more to do with how you walk!

If you are experiencing shoulder pain or neck tension look at your ankles.  Are they stiff?  Can you move them fully from pointing your toes to a hard flex in your foot?  You want to be able to point and flex more than 90 degrees. If you can only bend your ankles to 90 degrees then more than likely you will lead with your head when you walk.  Leading with your head puts a lot of pressure on your mid-back and lower neck. Most people who experience shoulder and neck pain have really stiff and inflexible ankles which limit the flexibility of the feet.

Could Your Shoes Also Be the Culprit?

Surprisingly for many, what seems like a smart choice in footwear can actually limit your foot and ankle flexibility – and thus contribute to shoulder pain! Your shoes could also be the secret to relieving shoulder pain!

Start by looking at the sole of your shoes.  Thick hard soles can end any flexibility in your foot. Thick soles may have more cushion to reduce pain in your arch, however the pain in your arch is more than likely coming from a lack of flexibility in the arch itself. The hard sole of the shoe just makes it worse over time. The same is true for orthotics, gel soles, or any other insoles you buy at the store. I admit, they do solve the foot pain problem initially, but the long-term effects can be catastrophic. Believe or not, stiff feet can lead to knee or hip replacements, or back and neck pain. It pays to allow your foot more room to flex on its own.

Ankle Range of Motion

Secondly, check the range of motion of your ankles. Many gyms, stretch classes, yoga classes, and even physical therapy all include calf stretching techniques. Most of these stretches do not improve range of motion of the ankles. Here is the reason why.

The calf area is made up of four muscles. These muscles allow your foot to move laterally, vertically, and rotationally. Being able to move your foot in this way prevents falls.

Think about the traditional calf stretches. Most use some sort of a slant board, curb, or step. At best, you can only stretch the two middle calf muscles and never stretch the inside or outside calf muscles. These are just as important as the other two muscles. Their main function is to move your foot side to side or laterally, which prevents you from falling the grade or incline of the ground you are walking on changes.  They also help with rotation, when you turn to see behind you.  The inside and outside calf muscles also help with vertical lift as without them it is hard to rise up on your toes to optimal range.

More on the Anatomy of the Calf

The calf muscles begin above the knee on the backside of your leg and run down and around the ankle into the arch area of the foot. This gives the calf control over how your feet move. However, if your calves are short and limit the range of motion of the ankles, you may need to lead with your nose for momentum to be able to walk. Get the connection now?

The arch of the foot works like a spring. I am sure you have heard, “they have a spring in their step.” The arch absorbs the impact of your foot hitting the ground which will protect your knees and hips from wearing out. Arch supports restrict the arch from absorbing the impact. However, arch supports and orthotics were designed to stop the symptom of sore arches. Every health care practitioner is taught the difference between symptom-based care and causal-based care. We focus on causal-based care which is why we do what we do with our patients.

Start By Walking Slowly and Look for These Clues

Finally, practice walking barefoot in your home, preferably in a hallway in case you lose your balance and need to grab the wall. Slowly walk and feel which areas of your feet hit the floor first. You may find it difficult to walk slow and that is a sign that instead of walking, you are just falling forward leading with your head. Notice if you step more to the inside or outside of your foot. This is a sign that either the inside or outside calf muscle is short. As the foot goes behind you, do you feel your toes bending and pushing you into your next stride? Shoes with thick soles prevent you from bending your toes. This will force you to use your thighs which can lead to low back pain as well. Ouch!

The Optimal Way to Stretch for Relieving Shoulder Pain

There is a better way to improve the flexibility of your ankles and feet, and thus relieving shoulder pain and neck tension. It is a simple stretch that only takes 10 minutes a day and you can do it anytime and anywhere.

All you need is a yoga strap, rope, or anything that is not stretchy. A stretchy band is designed for strength training and won’t be helpful here. You can do this stretch on the floor sitting next to a wall or sitting in a hard-backed chair with an ottoman.  If sitting on the floor, be sure your hips are up against the wall. Place the strap around the ball of your foot and gently pull your toes back towards you. As you are gently pulling your toes back, breathe out, and focus on relaxing the calf muscle behind your knee. Next rotate your foot inward and repeat. Finally, rotate your foot outward and repeat. These will allow to stretch all four calf muscles.

The secret to stretching is learning that forcing the stretch with too much pressure or pulling too long will have the opposite effect of what you want. When stretching any muscle, gently stretch the muscle while breathing out and relaxing the tension in the muscle. If you pull too hard, your brain will fight the pain and you lose the stretch. I talk about this in more detail on my Tuesday Afternoon Tips, click here to join.

Increasing your ankle and foot flexibility improves your balance, reduces head forward posture, and improves your energy as you walk. Instead of pushing and pulling stiff muscles, your muscles will be softer and more flexible. This takes less energy to move.

Try the Stretch n’ Release Technique for Relieving Shoulder Pain

The Stretch n’ Release Technique combines stretching with the training of your brain to stop fighting back. When your brain releases, you can release the emotional tension behind your pain. 

In a typical session with a client, whether in person or by Zoom, we look at the dynamics of your particular shoulder or neck pain to root out the source of the tension. Then I demonstrate how to utilize the Stretch n’ Release Technique and daily stretches to relieve shoulder pain for good.

Interested? You can learn more here in my recent video or sign up for a complimentary 30-minute session on Zoom.