Massage techniques & tools for relieving neck and shoulder discomfort

Many people experience pain and stiffness in the neck and shoulders. Such discomfort can distract from work or even prevent you from doing normal activities.

Stiffness and pain are generally caused by factors like stress and improper posture. While some cases require the help of chiropractor or doctor, many cases can be solved by traditional massage. Below, we discuss a variety of massage techniques, including specific techniques for stiff neck and shoulders.

Massage techniques for neck and shoulders

The following techniques focus on relieving pain, stress, and tension while promoting relaxation.

Relaxing therapeutic touch – best performed by a partner

Sometimes, all it takes is the touch of another person to release tension caused by stress.

Sit or lie down in a comfortable position and have your partner gently place his or her hands on your upper back/neck. Your partner can use motions like circling, brushing, and tapping to release stress in affected areas.

Close your eyes, breathe deeply, and focus on the sensation of touch.

Actively releasing tension (ART) – best performed by a practitioner

ART is a method of tissue release that was developed by Dr. Michael Leahy. The technique focuses on applying pressure to a specific muscle while the patient moves that muscle from a shortened position to a lengthened position.

ART can relieve pain, help restore range of motion following injuries, and help break down scar tissue.

Myofascial therapy (MFR) – best performed by a specialist

Also known as myofascial trigger point therapy, MFR is a method of stretching used mainly to release pain and tightness caused by myofascial pain syndrome.

This technique focuses on releasing shortness and tightness in the muscles, and is commonly used to help patients recover from sports injuries in areas containing soft tissue (shoulder, back, hip, etc.). MFR therapy is also used to treat carpal tunnel syndrome and migraines.

If you have the following symptoms, you should consider MRF therapy:

  • Tightness that pulls the body out of alignment (for example, causing you to favor one shoulder over another)
  • A feeling of excessive pressure on joints or muscles that produces pain

Deep tissue massage for neck, shoulders, and other areas – best performed by a masseuse

Deep tissue massage is most beneficial for people suffering from consistent pain in the muscles, especially in the lower back, shoulders, and neck.

The goal of deep tissue massage is to release chronic patterns of stiffness/tension n a person’s body. The technique uses slow strokes and deep pressure to address the body’s soft tissues.

Deep tissue massage isn’t just about pressure, and should not cause severe pain for the patient. Your therapist may use his or her forearms, elbows, knuckles, and fists to achieve deep pressure.

Long-term muscle tension causes muscle fibers to shorten, which in turn reduces blood flow. With less blow flow, the area becomes gummed up with metabolic waste. These areas become stiff and hard, forming contracted bands called adhesions.

Normal movement becomes difficult or impossible, and pain and stiffness set in. Deep tissue massage addresses these problems by working firmly on those bands to re-separate the tissues, elongate shortened tissue structures, and promote proper circulation.

Self release for shoulders – performed on oneself

When massaging oneself to release pain and stiffness in the neck and shoulders, you’ll need to find and apply pressure to trigger points.

These spots will feel like stiff areas or hard balls of flesh. You’ll need to apply strong pressure to the area(s) for 30 seconds or longer. The easiest way to do this is to place a tennis ball or other small ball against a wall and lean into it.

Self neck massage techniques – performed on oneself

While it’s not quite as comfortable as receiving a massage from someone else, you can easily relieve stiffness on your own.

Relieve stiff neck: step 1

  • Start by sitting down and tilting your head back
  • Using the fingers and palms of each hand, gently squeeze the flesh on either sides of your spine, where your neck meets your back
  • Slowly tilt your head forwards (continue squeezing)
  • Hold this position for 10 seconds, then move your head back to a normal position

Relieve stiff neck: step 2

  • Gently stroke the back of your neck with your hands to warm the area
  • Use deep pressure and circular motions on the neck area (use fingers of both hands)
  • Make sure not to push on your spine

Relieve stiff neck: step 3

  • Squeeze the muscle of your right shoulder with your left hand
  • Hold that squeeze while slowly rotating your shoulder back
  • If you hear a grinding noise, your muscles are tense and need to be released
  • Repeat this exercise with the other hand on your other shoulder

Massage to relieve headache – performed on someone lying on his/her back

Neck massage technique for headache (for headaches at the base of the skull)

  • Cup the person’s head in your hands
  • Find the ridge at the base of the skull (your fingers will sort of sink into that area)
  • Gently and firmly pull back with your fingers
  • If you move forward from that spot, there are a few bumps in front of the ridge
  • Use circular motions or deep pressure on that area

Head massage (for headaches in the temples)

  • Place your fingers on the person’s temples and move upwards (towards yourself) until you find a little dip
  • Right above that dip is a ridge; this is where you want to massage
  • Use slow movements and deep pressure
  • Maintain contact with your fingers

Massage tools (manual and electric)

Body Back Buddy ($29.95 on Amazon)

This weird-looking manual massage tool was designed to help people reach any and all pressure points on the body – especially the back.

The Body Back Buddy is easy to use and features 11 “therapy knobs” that enable users to apply pressure to trigger points.

The Body Back Buddy allows users to experience deep tissue massage, trigger point therapy, and myofascial release. Purchase includes a detailed instructional guide to help with self-massage.


WAHL 4290-300 deep tissue percussion massager ($27.97 on Amazon)

WAHL is a corded, handheld electric massager that delivers powerful percussion and deep kneading massage to relieve and relax tightness.

Product features variable intensity and includes four attachments: flat disc, four finder flex (mimics the feeling of fingers), accupoint, and deep muscle.

WAHL features an easy-to-use, ergonomic design and 8-foot power cord. The massager’s powerful motor is capable of 3,350 pulses per minute.

Activator method – performed by chiropractors 

Most professional massages don’t involve the use of tools; but if you visit a chiropractor, he or she may use a spring-loaded device like the one pictured at left.

The “activator method chiropractor technique” is both a diagnosis and a treatment. Professionals use it to treat neck pain, back pain, and headaches.

The technique involves the use of an “activator adjuster,” which is used to provide fast, low-force impulses to specific points.

The purpose of the activator adjuster is to restore motion to a specific vertebra or joint. The adjuster is an easier alternative to the traditional “high velocity low amplitude thrust” – which is a manual form of spinal manipulation.

Click here to learn more about trigger point massage tools.

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