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The Body Plays Tug-of-War

Updated: May 30, 2020

If you’ve gotten a massage from me, I probably spent time working away from your symptoms. Almost in the opposite area. This might have confused you. Well, there’s a good reason why.

Muscles work in pairs. The front and back of your torso are constantly playing tug-of-war.

Because of that, often times, the symptom and the actual cause are located kitty-corner to each other.

Let’s apply this to the upper back.

Say you work long hours at a desk, and maybe don't have the best posture. As you slump, your head and shoulders roll to the front of the body. The back of your neck and upper back are stretched long.

In tensegrity tug-of-war, the front of the body is winning.

You might point out the painful knot in your shoulders, like a guitar string of tension. Yeah, because that muscle is pulled taut, like a rope strung between two poles. It's a protective tension. If we release that muscle, it might feel nice for an hour or a day, but ultimately it's aggravating symptoms. It allows the back to the lengthen even more, worsens posture, and does nothing to restore balance to the system.

Instead, we need to look past symptoms and address the root cause of pain.

In this case, it's the front of the body that's short and tight. It isn't symptomatic, because it's compacted, which is a very safe position to be in and neurologically uninteresting. It isn't going to injure itself over-reaching like this, so it stays quiet.

You're getting a lot more stimuli about the over-stretched back muscles that are being forced past their limit. These muscles are the victim of the root cause, and are in a precarious eccentrically loaded position where injury is likely. But ignore that instinct to stretch out the pain: you can't fix over-stretched muscles by stretching them further.

This is why I don't recommend back stretches to patients with back pain; learn what I recommend instead.

This principle has huge ramifications for how we treat muscle imbalance (such as poor posture or chronic neck pain).

Nothing happens in isolation in the human body. We are designed as a set of dynamic, opposing forces and woven together with connective tissue. Learn more about fascia.

Every muscle has its counterpart. Sometimes more than one.

This ability to see the big picture and untangle the right knot is what separates medical massage from a simple feel-good rub. It's why results are more meaningful and pain relief lasts longer.

Find a good massage therapist who you trust, and pay attention to how you feel not only during the treatment but in the days and weeks that follow. It will become clear what really works for you.


Jesse Martel is a Licensed Massage Therapist who practices in Seattle, Washington. She has helped many people overcome neck/shoulder injuries and chronic back pain with Upgraded Myofascial Release massage. Treatment includes Aromatherapy, Myofascial Release, Cupping, Lymphatic Drainage, and Kinesiology Tape at one flat rate. Her website is



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