I’ll do a more substantial update on TOS and my most recent surgery, which was a two-level disc replacement in my cervical spine on April 3. But for today, I’d like to offer a few things I’ve picked up over the last decade that are low-risk and high reward for nearly everybody, and especially people who play musical instruments or spend a long time in front of a computer.
There are a couple pieces of kit required for the most effective results, but don’t rush to Amazon! If you’re not someplace terribly remote, hit Marshalls/Ross/your favorite discount shop and sort through their Graveyard of Discarded Exercise Things. You’ll get a better deal! The links to images are just for reference, because I liked the depiction. They’re not “affiliate links”.
What you’ll need:
- 48 inch long foam roller- needs to support the head all the way down to at least the beginning of the lumbar spine. full cylindrical shape, not semicircle! Make sure you don’t get one with knobs all over it: those are great for rolling out fascia, but absolute murder to lie down on. You could technically MacGyver yourself something approximating this if you rolled every single large towel in your home into a long cylinder, but it doesn’t give the same support.
- thera-cane : looks like a nightmare, feels like a dream
This first one I call the “Letter C Reset”, because human bodies love to round the upper back and drop the shoulders forward, creating a concave “C” shape. We do this for all kinds of reasons: crappy chairs, things like cellos and pianos and computers that ask us to have our arms in front of the body, the fact that core strength is really tricky to get a feel for, etc. So this sort of resets the body over time, back to a more equal, less concave shape.
This allows gravity to do the work, encouraging every overtaxed muscle in the upper torso to surrender to a beautiful stretch.
The goal is to stay here for a long-ish time, but if you’re just beginning the journey to flexibility, listen to your body and don’t push things. Breathing into and expanding the belly is also beneficial here- it gently moves the spine, when done correctly. Many of us breathe up and into the neck and shoulders, which is one of the hallmarks of TOS, and also has a way of taxing and shortening the muscles of the back and neck, contributing to headaches, altering posture over time, and also depriving the body of essential natural motion that keeps things balanced and flexible.
I stay here for about 10-15 minutes at a time, twice a day, most days.
- supports (like books or folded towels) under each arm to decrease initial stretch
- hands folded on belly for a milder but still meaningful stretch
- towels on foam roller for comfort
- ice or heating pad on upper or lower back
- pillows on ground to support head for tall/long torsoed people
- placing light weights, like bean bags on each collar bone to deepen stretch
Link to an image of an actual non-stick person doing this.
Next: we have Cow Face pose- and no, I did not make up that name. The yoga people did, because when done correctly, the stacked knees and flared legs resemble the head and horns of a cow. Here’s a link to a real person sitting in this position.
The reason I’m recommending this pose is because the hips have a way of serving as the dumping ground for all of the body’s problems. Stress and emotional trauma also seem to find their ways into this complex set of massive muscles and other soft tissues. Here’s a study about the loop between mood disorders and pain that is NOT saying “it’s all in your head”, but rather “these things cause and amplify each other”.
You might need to start slowly with this one, as it creates a fairly direct and intense stretch. Sitting cross-legged is a good start, making sure you occasionally switch which leg is over or under. From the cross-legged posture, lean forward without rounding your back. Imagine lifting up and out of the lower spine and bringing your heart forwards and towards the ground.
If you’re already comfy with cross legged sitting, enter Cow Face pose by folding one leg on the ground at something close to a right angle (mine is probably a little closer to 75º when I start) and then guide the other leg on top, so that the knees stack. As you open the knee-to-shin segment of the leg, the stretch deepens and also brings in some glutes.
Then, once that’s attainable, bring the heart foward and over the knee. The eventual goal is to be able to rest the torso on the knees, but if you never get there, it’s not such a big deal. Just keep gently opening the hips over time, and that’s progress enough!
The last technique I’ll share today involves the strange looking but amazing feeling thera cane. The way you use it is not unlike the way you can use a tennis ball against a wall to get at knotty spots in the back. The difference is that the thera cane is even easier to use, more precise to pinpoint, and, as my very detailed and anatomically accurate drawing depicts, you can employ active release techniques, where you apply pressure and then slowly move.
Three of my favorite active release techniques:
- placing the rounded end of the cane where the scalenes meet the shoulder, pulling straight down, and then moving my head and neck away from the point of contact.
- placing the rounded end of the cane in any number of places in on the trapezius and then moving my arm- first, to the front, then to the sides. This frequently causes a crunching sensation (and even a sound!!) that is very satisfying.
- same thing as above, except tracing a slightly curved line down the course of the scapula—a place most people who get tui-na massages know well—and most folks will find some “marbles” there, too.
I’ll be back with another installment in the next week or so. Of course, feel free to leave comments or shoot me an email (contact at emily wright dot net) if you want clarifications, other modifications, or to speak in a more private way. ❤️
Last, if any of this (or previous posts, or my book, or video tutorials, or past lessons, or email exchanges) have been useful, please consider helping me pay off the considerable debt incurred over the last 4 years of disability and massive medical bills- which are, right now hovering around $14,000, and I haven’t gotten my bill for the disc replacement yet. You can do this by scheduling lessons either in person or online (via Skype/FaceTime/Hangouts), sending a donation via PayPal (link here) or, if you’d like to pay any of the hospitals I’m currently on payment plans with (Johns Hopkins University Medical Center, Virginia Hospital Center, and George Washington Medical Faculty Associates), I’m happy to provide account details to generous souls who’d like to pay providers directly. I’m past the point of being proud. In the last 10 years, I have had to sell my instrument TWICE. I’ve had to pass up opportunities with prominent ensembles, turn down a faculty position, and scale back every expectation because the pain and dysfunction made me an unreliable performer and potential employee. While I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason, I am going to keep sharing what I’ve learned, so that perhaps other folks might be able to sidestep some of the potholes that I’ve found myself sidelined by. But to fully recover, I need help. I’m currently waiting to schedule PT because every penny is essentially going to pay off previous medical care. Without PT and continuing care, it’s going to be impossible to work my way back to solvency, so you can see how the cycle repeats itself. I’ve pushed myself too hard during recovery every time, always for the same reason: the desperate need to make money to pay off medical debt. To those who have helped me financially over the years, I am so grateful. Although this sounds like a hard-luck story, it ends up being more of a love letter. Thank you, thank you, thank you. xoxo, e.