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3 surprising things a deep-tissue massage taught me about my back pain


Photo: Stocksy/Victor Torres Pin It
Photo: Stocksy/Victor Torres
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Ever since high school, I’ve had consistent pain in my neck and back. Chalk it up to hours bent at the computer, texting and scrolling Instagram on my phone, or my random assortment of pillows—it’s something I’ve just had (and largely ignored) for years.

So when I was invited to try out an Alpine Arnica Deep Tissue Massage at Naturopathica, I jumped—then ran—at the opportunity. And while I assumed I’d feel amazing after getting my tense muscles relaxed, my masseuse also surprised me with how much she knew about my habits—from my favorite workout to how I held my phone during calls.

My masseuse surprised me with how much she knew about my habits—from my favorite workout to how I held my phone during calls.

How did she do it? Other than being a highly trained professional, the massage therapists at Naturopathica are taught to assess a situation by getting info from the client, in addition to doing a visual body scan (checking to see if anything seems imbalanced, like uneven shoulder heights) and conducting a physical run-through with their hands to feel what’s tense.

“It’s important to note: We practice mindful touch at the salon, which means that we’re constantly evaluating and observing in the moment to [determine] how the tissues are unwinding. We don’t go into a treatment with a preconceived plan to tackle tension,” explains Barbara Close, founder and CEO of Naturopathica (who’s also a massage therapist, clinical esthetician, and master herbalist).

After sharing that my neck had been tighter than usual for the past few weeks, my massage therapist, Jean, dove in and told me about some pain I probably was experiencing—she was right.

Scroll down to see 3 more things I never knew about my body until a deep-tissue massage revealed them.

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Photo: Stocksy/Jennifer Brister
Photo: Stocksy/Jennifer Brister

1. My shoulders are uneven

As Jean navigated around my shoulders, her first question was: “You carry your purse on your right side, don’t you?” The truth is that I recently converted to a backpack to help with my neck pain, but she was right—that was the side I always carried on. “The shoulder that carries the most weight will be higher because you’re forcing the muscles on one side to become more developed and tense,” Close explains. She told me that I was smart for switching to a two-shouldered bag, but it didn’t quite matter—the damage was done.

She did, however, share a genius trigger-point massage for upper-back pain:

1. To find the most common trigger point in the shoulders, place the heel of your hand on your opposite collar bone. Let the fingers rest loosely across the top of the shoulder.

2. Keeping your hand firmly in place, swing your free arm gently forward and back. As your arm moves, you will feel the top of your shoulder blade bump into your index or middle finger. Gently press down on tender areas while slowly moving your arm back and forth to deactivate trigger points.

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Photo: Stocksy/Lisa Macintosh
Photo: Stocksy/Lisa Macintosh

2. My neck pain stemmed from my mid-back

My flare-ups usually last for a few days, as a result of a bad night of sleep or a weird crick, but since December, I’d been experiencing pretty sharp, consistent pain in my neck. While I hoped that Jean would work out the knots and leave it feeling light and pain-free, she actually discovered that my mid-back muscles were the root of the problem.

“The head is a heavy object, so many muscle groups are involved in holding it up—especially the muscles that begin in the middle of the back and end at the top of the neck,” Close says. “They also work in opposing groups, so if the back is tight or weak, it will pull on the neck.” Jean’s suggestion? Get a lumbar pillow for the office, so that my back is supported and my neck can get a bit of a break. (Done and done.)

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stocksy-rob-and-julia-campbell-group-of-people-in-spin-class-together
Photo: Stocksy/Rob and Julia

3. I’m leading with my right foot during spinning

While I’m very aware of my neck and back pain, I never would have complained about tight muscles in my legs—unless I had just done endless squats at a fitness class, of course. As she reached my hamstrings, Jean asked if I was a spin junkie. (Guilty.)

How did she know? My right hamstring was one of the tightest she’s ever felt (ouch)—likely due to overusing that leg during SoulCycle by leading with it, she says. “If you are favoring one side, you’re ultimately engaging that muscle more, leading to imbalanced strength and tension,” she explains. She told me that while it might not be an issue today, that much wear and tear on the same leg would eventually lead to some kind of injury or pain (in other words, it’s time for some recovery ASAP).

If you can’t get in for a massage, try these yoga moves to relieve back pain or this core-strengthening sequence (no crunches required).