Mother’s Shoulder

by Philip Waldman, D.O. FSCCO.

Registered Osteopath of Chelsea Natural Health, London, SW10 and 4 maple Gardens, Hove, BN3 7JU

I have a special interest in antenatal / pregnancy and post natal osteopathic care and have been working in this field for 30 years.  During that time I have seen a lot of new mothers and more often than not, at some point during the first year of their child’s life, treated them for what I know as Mother’s shoulder.  I have also seen fathers with the same complaint , so maybe it should be called parent’s shoulder?

Symptoms of Mother's Shoulder?

Typically they complain of pain under the shoulder blade and in the base of the neck, sometimes with pain further up the neck and / or into the upper arm.   If it is very bad they can get pins and needles and   / or numbness into the arm as far as the fingers, or if it is the neck, they can get bad headaches.  It is usually on the side opposite their dominant hand and come on gradually and continues to worsen.  It usually takes the form of a dull ache under the shoulder blade, like a tooth ache, and nothing really seems to shift it.  Massage can help for a while but the pain returns.  Often I hear of people pushing their mid-backs up against door frames to try and self-massage the knot of muscle that builds up by their shoulder blade.

Causes of Mother's Shoulder

After ruling out anything more serious, very often what is left is a musculo-skeletal strain pattern that I know as Mother’s Shoulder.  This involve a jamming of the joints between the ribs and the spine and the resulting muscle spasm that builds causes all the symptoms.  To cut the story short, basically what happens in that the ribs jam up due to the mechanical strain on them but the body still wants them to move (hey, we still have to breath).  Two different muscle groups battle it out, one saying to the ribs “Move”, the other saying “Stay still”.  They tussle and wrestle with each other and then get their mates involved, and before you know it the whole shoulder and neck musculature is involved.  This can be very painful and cause nerves to get squeezed (thus the pins and needles / numbness that can occur).  I have found that until the mechanics of the ribs are corrected the pattern will continue, and this is where I as an osteopath can help.  Patients have often reported great improvements soon after treatment.

Why? What?

The reason this all comes about in the 1st place is due to the combination of several mechanical factors at a time when the mother is undergoing great change.  In the post natal period the mothers body is having to adapt to not being pregnant any more.  All those postural changes during pregnancy have to be “undone” and the body has to re-organise, and all of this whilst raising a child.  This is a very physical task and mothers tend to carry their child over the shoulder of their less dominant hand so that their dominant hand is free (to write, use keys etc etc).   Another, and I think the most important factor is what mothers do when they feed their child, and what happens is very similar for both breast and bottle fed babies.  Mum sits down to feed, gets herself and her baby nicely positioned using pillows and alike and starts to feed.  All is well but then mum, as we all would do, looks down lovingly at the bundle of joy in her arms.  She spend the whole feed doing this but in doing so she places a postural and mechanical strain into her neck and shoulder (if the baby is feeding from say they left breast then looking down at it places a strain through the muscles on the back right of the neck into the right shoulder blade and mid-back – try mimicking this posture and see if you can feel what I am talking about).   It is this, along with the increased lifting and carrying that the mother does that kicks off this pattern. Bear in mind that all of this is happening at a time when the mothers ligaments are still soft as a result of the hormones in her body from when she was pregnant.  This is especially the case for breast-feeding mothers as the ligaments stay softer for longer in breast-feeding mothers.  If the ligaments are softer then the muscles have to work harder to support the joints, and this can exacerbate problems like this.

So what can be done about this?

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying don’t look at your beautiful child, I am saying be aware of your posture when you do this and do some gentle shoulder rolls and stretches to keep your shoulders.  Flexibility is important, keeping the mid-back and shoulders mobile with greatly reduce the likelihood of this complaint.  Find a mother and baby yoga class to go to as here you will learn fun and safe techniques that will keep you moving, and be great for you baby as well.   If you start to suffer then some osteopathic treatment may well help.  If you would like to see an Osteopath then please consult to find your local Registered Osteopath.  In treating complaints like this it is often a case of helping manage the situation.   Parents can’t stop being parents, so it is a case of offering treatment for the mechanical factors whilst advising on “lifestyle” changes that reduce the chance of it happening again.

If you have any questions about this, please do feel free to contact me using the form below.   However, please note that this article describes a pattern I often see, but that this may not be what you a suffering from if you have these or similar symptoms.   Please seek an appropriate medical opinion rather than consider this article definitive advice as there are other reasons why you could be suffering these symptoms and these will need to be ruled out.