Neck Pain and Shoulder Stiffness: Chinese Medical Approach

Neck pain and shoulder stiffness are very common problems—so common, in fact, that the expression "a pain in the neck", is an often-used figure of speech.

Neck pain and shoulder stiffness can have a variety of causes, with continuous mechanical strain, constant stress, and trauma being the most frequently cited. Keeping your head in an awkward position can cause your neck muscles to fatigue, circulation in the tissues to diminish, and the joints to "lock" in place. This is a very common occurrence in office workers who sit in front of a computer and type for extensive periods of time. Trauma can cause a "whiplash" syndrome, with the muscles in your neck going into permanent spasm and causing pain and a limited range of motion. Acupuncture and acupressure or tui-na are very effective in treating neck pain caused by whiplash.

Constant stress is also a common factor in neck/shoulder stiffness and pain. Being under constant stress causes the sympathetic nervous system to become hypersensitive, like always being in the "flight or fight" mode. As many of us tend to "hold" much of our stress in the upper body, neck and shoulders, this can cause constant muscle spasm, a corresponding lack of circulation and nutrition to the tissues, leading to neck and shoulder pain and stiffness.

For many people, a quick visit to a massage therapist has traditionally been considered the best way to provide temporary relief from chronic neck pain. A recent randomized study published recently in the British Medical Journal 1 suggests otherwise. "Our study shows that acupuncture can be an effective treatment for chronic neck pain, if the objective is to relieve pain and to improve mobility to the cervical spine," said Dr Dominik Irnich of Ludwig-Maximilians University Germany, one of the three settings in which the trial was conducted. The authors also concluded that "conventional massage had only a weak effect" in treating the condition effectively.

A Chinese medical approach to neck and shoulder stiffness and pain addresses both the mechanical and emotional aspects, through acupuncture, acupressure or tui-na, and, occasionally, herbal therapy. Generally three to five treatments over a short period of time (2 – 4 weeks) are sufficient to effect substantial results. Results are quicker and better for cases involving trauma and/or whiplash the sooner the treatments can begin after the event. The most common herbal formula that I might suggest for this condition is Ease 2™.

1 Irnich D, Behrens N, Molzen H, et al. Randomized trial of acupuncture compared with conventional massage and "sham" laser acupuncture for treatment of chronic neck pain. British Medical Journal June 30, 2001; 322:1-6.

For more information on this topic:

If you would like to pursue this form of treatment, contact me at the following telephone number or e-mail address. You will be asked to fill out a detailed intake form before your first appointment. You may pick this up at my office, or I can e-mail it to you.


Calvin Dale Smith, BA, MSc, DOM
Doctor of Oriental Medicine (USA)
Riverside Acupuncture and Wellness Centre
2211 Riverside Dr., Suite 106
Ottawa, ON K1H 7X5
cdalesmith at