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  • Writer's pictureTim McGee

Finding Balance: Holistic Approaches to Alleviating Stress-Related Upper Back and Neck Pain

Many of us have felt the discomfort of shoulder, upper back, and neck pain at some point. Often, it's hard to pinpoint the exact location of the pain, but one thing is clear: stress tends to make it worse. Interestingly, the Japanese language has a specific term for this phenomenon: "katakori."

Plastic model of acupuncture points and meridians of upper back

This term caught my attention for the first time while reading the wonderful book, "Fifty Years of Practice: The Case Studies of Shudo Denmai." Shudo Denmai stands out as a distinguished practitioner of the Meridian Therapy style of acupuncture in Japan. In his book, he shares insights into how acupuncture, particularly when involving gentle needling techniques, can significantly alleviate this type of pain.

These insights resonated with me deeply, as most of my clients come in with complaints related to pain or tension in the upper back, neck, and shoulders. My experience has similarly shown that acupuncture, along with bodywork, offers an effective solution for managing such discomfort.

What causes katakori?

According to Shudo Denmai’s book the main causes of katakori are:

  • Overuse of the hands and arms

  • Influence of computers, cell phones, and handheld devices

  • Eye disease/ such as glaucoma

  • Ear disease

  • Nose disease

  • Dental issues

  • Problems with cervical spine

  • Heart and other organ disease

  • Lung disease (1)

Based on my clinical experience, I find this list of causes to be comprehensive. Additionally, I would suggest including the onset of intense activity following an extended period of rest. An example is this is, a heavy day of spring garden work after spending the winter months with little to no outdoor activity.

What You Can Do to Alleviate Stress-Related Upper Back and Neck Pain

Life’s experiences teach us that there is a balance to be found in everything. What works for some may not work for others, highlighting the complexity and beautifully balanced nature of human physiology.

Listening to Your Body: Trust in the resilience and capacity for healing of the human body. It’s often more capable than we realize. When experiencing stress-related upper back pain, take a moment to listen to your body’s signals. Rather than pushing through katakori, sometimes the best approach is to rest and reassess your body’s needs. Often, if we tune-in to the discomfort and just observe it, the pain simply dissipates. No need to get too fixated on the pain or tension. If we just observe it, sometimes we gain insight into what is causing it and we can make simple adjustments. This is the best kind of healing because it comes from within our own experience and power.

Gentle Exercise: Exercise, within moderation, can be beneficial when experiencing flare-ups of muscle and tendon pain. Regular, gentle movement helps maintain strength, flexibility, and motor skills. Aim for balance; too little movement can lead to decreased physical capability, while too much can exacerbate pain. Examples of suitable exercise include yoga and simple shoulder stretches. One recommended resource is the online yoga classes Yoga With Adriene. There are many other teachers out there and just find someone you like. The main thing is to keep the stretching simple and gentle if things are flaring up. Save the more strenuous exercise or stretching for when you are feeling better.

Refraining from Aggravating the Pain: Resist the urge to continuously press on or mentally fixate on the painful area, as this can further inflame the issue. Sometimes, simply resting, applying warmth (such as a hot water bottle), and distracting yourself with activities like watching a comedy can offer relief. Monitoring how the pain reacts to gentle re-engagement with activities post-treatment can also indicate healing progress. A rapid decrease in pain duration post-treatment is a positive sign.

Acupuncture: Acupuncture is highly effective in addressing katakori, or stress-related upper back pain. Even when it isn’t the main concern, reducing tension in the upper back and neck is a common treatment focus. The upper back is a critical support area for our arms and neck, serving as a pathway for meridians. Ensuring smooth flow in this area is essential for preventing and addressing accumulative stress effects.

Massage: Self-massage can offer some relief, but having a friend or professional massage the affected area may be more effective. Simple, gentle rubbing with feedback on what feels helpful or too painful can alleviate tension in the upper shoulders.

Cupping: An effective method for reducing upper back pain and tension is cupping. Cupping is especially effective if the pain is sharp or stabbing and is in a fixed location. In East Asian Medicine we call this type of pain "blood stagnation," and it can be alleviated by moving the blood. This therapy should be performed by professionals or following thorough research for home use. It’s important to understand the technique and safety measures involved.

Key Takeaways: Patience and gradual progress are important. Don’t expect immediate eradication of all discomfort. Instead, focus on gradually enhancing flexibility and reducing tension through a balanced approach to rest, gentle exercise, and therapeutic practices like massage, cupping, and acupuncture.

Picture of a still lake in a valley. Text says "Find your balance. Click here to schedule.

  1. DENMEI., S. (2022). Fifty years of practice: The case studies of Shudo Denmei (S. Brown, Trans.; pp. 90–91). Eastland Press.

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