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  • Writer's pictureDr. Frank Wen, DC

Home Improvement Injury Prevention - Overhead Work

Updated: Jul 27, 2022

If you're a homeowner wanting to accomplish some things around the house and are looking for some tips on how to help make the work a little easier on your body and potentially keep yourself out of the chiropractic or physical therapy office, then this series of posts I am going to make in the coming months is for you.

With many of us transitioned to being at home more for the past two years, this spurred a movement in home fitness and home improvement. Like some during the pandemic, I also became a homeowner with lots of home improvement projects inside and outside. In the process of doing such, I realized my body has been a lot happier knockin' on 40's door than when I was in my twenties when doing these same tasks. This has been a byproduct of me working on my deficiencies and being smarter now with my body.

When you reach to work above you this requires adequate extension (looking up) of the head and neck, shoulder flexion (reaching up), and back extension (backwards arching) to do this for a prolonged period comfortably. And occasionally some tip toe leverage as you see me preparing to lay a second coat of paint in my bathroom...

It'd be great if all of us had this kind of mobility and control in this picture below, but the truth is life doesn't generally let us keep this kind of mobility we got as children unless we work on it on a consistent basis.

Now, most of us can cope with these extremes of motion in short doses even if you have pre-existing issues, but deficiencies in these areas can start to manifest as discomfort with even a simple weekend project.

Intuitively, we all know that it's more comfortable and easy the closer we can bring ourselves to the working height of our task by using a step or ladder. But even with that, we still can find ourselves having to reach funny due to poor angles or obstructions at times.

I'm going to go through each of the problem areas and show you some simple stretches and exercises that you can do that don't require any equipment to help prepare yourself ahead of time to spend a day doing tasks above you. If you're in any pain, this is probably not the best time to be doing these exercises because you should have that addressed first. I encourage you to seek help. If you're looking for a chiropractor near you, I happen to be located in Kirkland, Washington.

The Neck

When we look up, this requires backwards bending of the head and neck. Most of the individual contribution for this motion occurs in the upper segments of the neck whereas the lower neck joints have a lesser individual, but greater contribution collectively.

It's pretty common that many of us have postural habits or changes from using the phone or computer (see my video on how you can improve your computer set up) which sets us up for discomfort in the neck when doing other activities.

Oftentimes, many people will experience a compressive feeling or increased pressure in the back of the neck along with stretching and fatigue in the front of the neck when looking up.

Here are some simple exercises to help prepare your neck for working over head.

Cervical Extension Chest Pin Stretch

This stretch is not only stretching the anterior neck muscles that may be short and tight for you, but you are also helping to mobilize other connective tissue to help remove restrictions to looking up.

1. While looking straight ahead, push in and traction down lightly and pin down your soft tissue and musculature where your collar bones meet your breastbone or sternum using your fingers.

2. Look up with your head as far back as you can go and hold for 30 seconds. Break for 10 seconds and repeat 2 more times. You'll get a stretch in the front of the neck without the pinning, but it enhances the stretch a bit. You might notice how much upward traction you feel on the skin of your chest.

Prone on Elbows Cervical Retraction

Many of us are probably underactive in the muscles that help to draw our head over our torso better because we spend so much time looking down. I've spent too many years before being a chiropractor doing that so I really know. Mastering this exercise is actually similar to one of our first milestones as a baby before transitioning to sitting up. Engaging this will help improve some lower neck mobility and control so we can spread the load and movement across the neck.

1. Lay on your stomach on and rest with your elbows bent, about shoulder width apart.

2. Try to draw your neck back and chin inward, but try to focus feeling the pressure and resistance in the lower back part of your neck. If you touch the lower part of your neck you can feel a big bump. This is usually the bony protrusion of your last neck segment. and about where you want to try to feel the "pressure" or focus of your effort in bringing your head back. Try to hold for 30 seconds. Rest 10 seconds and repeat 2 more times.

The Upper Trunk

Aside from your neck, you will also want to work on improving your upper back mobility. Most of us are very stiff in the thoracic spine and having poor mobility here means our poor necks and low backs will have to bear more burden of helping us to look up and bend backwards.

Side-Lying Thoracic Lumbar Rotation

1. Lay on your side with a cushion under your neck if desired.

2. Bring your knees up to 90 degrees.

3. Keeping your bottom arm straight, rotate your trunk, head, and other arm the other direction. Hold for 2 minutes before switching to the other side. If you are very restricted in the upper spine or pectoral muscles, you may find that it is difficult to get very far. That's okay. Working on this consistently over time will improve it.

The Shoulder

Now that you've opened up the neck and torso a bit, we want to make sure the shoulders are open to help them reach up high with minimal impediment. If you are someone who has pain when reaching above with the shoulder, that could be sign of a rotator cuff problem and I recommend that you get it looked at before doing any overhead work. Shoulder injuries happen to be 3rd most common injury I treat and I enjoy helping people recover from these injuries as I have went through a shoulder injury myself that was unaddressed for several years until I became a chiropractor.

Pec Stretch

Tight pectorals can restrict your arm a bit from getting above you at end range. This is an oldie, but a goodie.

1. Find a corner or a doorway at home and bring your arm up to be parallel to the ground with your elbow bent at 90 degrees and grab the door jamb.

2. Lean forward through the door way to feel a stretch across your pecs. Hold this for 1 minute before switching to the other side. Repeat again on each side if you have time. If you happen to feel some tingling in the arms or hands brought on by this stretch, it is normal as the stretching of the pecs will sometimes temporarily compress some nerves on their way down to the arm. However, if this is something that has been ongoing before this, I encourage you to get it checked out.

Lat Stretch

Tight latissimus dorsi muscles can also be a contributor to poor upward mobility of the shoulder and arm as it attaches to the shoulder and helps to draw the arm down. As this muscle also attaches into your low back, it is helpful to stretch it as well to avoid excessive arching in the low back when trying to reach the arms up overhead.

1. Raise your arm up as straight as you can while seated or standing (I prefer to sit).

2. Take your other hand and grab the forearm of the arm in the air. While holding the arm, lean the trunk to the side away from the arm in the air, using the hand to help provide assistance. Hold for 1 minute before switching to the other side. Repeat again on each arm if you have time. You'll feel the stretch from under the arm pit, down behind the rib cage, and into the lower back of the side being stretched.

Shoulder and Upper Back Stretch

This stretch not only helps to open up the muscles under the shoulder that may restrict it from going upward but also throws in an upper back extension stretch as well as gives you an opportunity to practice that cervical retraction exercise.

1. While using a coffee table or a chair (I know I said no equipment, but surely you must have one of these!), place your hands palms down on the edge and position yourself with your knees far back. You might have to play with the positioning to find what's right for you.

2. Once you think you got the position down, you're going to shift your bottom backwards while dropping your trunk downward to be parallel with the ground. If done correctly you should feel a stretch in your shoulders and your upper spine. Try your best to maintain some cervical retraction. If you feel like you are arching your low back too much, you can tight your abdominals a bit to help counter that. Try to hold this for 30 seconds if you can. Repeat again if you have time.

The Low Back

If you've been keeping up with the other stretches, you may find that your low back isn't quite as tight as it may be from leaning back while looking up. That's because having better mobility in other areas reduces the compensation that the lower back will take up to help you achieve the positioning desired. But if you still have some soreness afterward, we can do the following after your job to open things up.

Child's Pose

This is a pretty straightforward yoga pose to target the extensor muscles in the low back and open compressed low back joints.

Get onto your hands and knees and sit your bottom back to your heels to induce a gentle stretch in the lower back. You are welcome to hold the arms straight if you want to try to stretch the shoulders too. Hold this position for 2-3 minutes.

Seated Side Stretch

This stretch will produces a deeper stretch of the extensor muscles in the low back.

1. Sit cross-legged on the ground. If this is too hard for you to do, you are welcome to sit on a chair.

2. Lean to one side. You should feel a deep stretch in the low back on the side you are leaning away from. Hold for 1-2 minutes before switching sides. Repeat again on each side if you have time.

So there you have it! These are some very simple exercises you can do to to help you hopefully prevent some discomfort when doing overhead work at home.

As the weather starts to warm up again in the Pacific Northwest I'll be headed back outside to do some yard work where many patients commonly injure themselves doing work. So stay tuned.

Did this post make you question anything going on with your body today? If you're looking for a chiropractor in Kirkland that will provide a detailed evaluation and comprehensive treatment that includes self-care- I encourage you to schedule your first chiropractic visit by clicking the book online button above!

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