Millions of people suffer from chronic back, neck and leg pain. Doctors are likely to diagnose arthritis or a disk problem--but in many cases, that diagnosis is wrong. In my work as a physical therapist, I've found that much of joint and muscle pain can instead be traced to muscle imbalances, created when one muscle group gets overworked and becomes thick and shortened. A muscle must be at optimal length to contract properly, so a disproportioned muscle is not only weak...but it also affects the opposite muscle, which compensates by becoming overly long.

These weak, imbalanced muscles pull nearby joints—and other muscles-out of alignment, and that can lead to painful irritation and inflammation. This commonly occurs with the thigh muscles, affecting the low back and knees, and the shoulder and upper back muscles, affecting the neck. By bringing these muscles back into balance, you can realign these joints and relieve chronic pain.

How To Get Relief

To get help for the most common areas of pain, do either the lower-body or upper-body exercises given here two to three times a week, depending on your own area of pain.*

Or you can do all four exercises-to ensure that your posture will improve and that you will feel stronger and more agile. These exercises use hand weights and resistance bands, which are available at sporting-goods stores and online. Choose enough resistance so that your muscles feel tired after 10 repetitions.

Low-Back Pain And/Or Knee Pain

Doctors love to blame low-back pain on disk problems, but the real causc in most cases stems from the fact that we all work our front thigh muscles (quadriceps) much more than the backs of our thighs (hamstrings) and gluteal muscles (buttocks). As a result, the front thigh muscles get bigger and shorter. This pulls the front of the pelvis downward, causing the low back to arch. Over time, this causes the low-back muscles to become short and weak, leaving them susceptible to painful strains and spasms. Shortened quadriceps also lead to chronic knee pain because they pull up on the kneecap, causing friction between bone surfaces and inflammation in the knee joint.

Solution: Stretch your quadriceps and strengthen your hamstring and gluteal muscles. This will lengthen and strengthen your low-back muscles and take pressure off your knees.

To stretch quadriceps: First, loop a non-stretchy belt (such as one made of leather) around one ankle. Then lie flat on your back along the edge of a bed so that the leg with the belt looped around the ankle hangs off the bed.

*Always consult your doctor before starting any new exercise program.

The other leg should be bent with the foot flat on the mattress. Pull the belt

in toward your buttocks so that your knee bends. Continue pulling until you feel a pleasant stretch in the front of your thigh. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds, release, then repeat the stretch two or three times.

To strengthen the hamstrings and gluteals: Holding a dumbbell in each hand, stand with your feet slightly wider than your shoulders, legs straight. (Practice your form first without dumbbells...then when you can do the exercise properly, add dumbbells heavy enough so that you feel the hamstrings working. With palms facing your thighs, slowly run the dumbbell down the front of the legs, as far as the knee, the mid-shin or the ankle, until you feel a pleasant tension in your hamstrings. Keep your back straight and your head in line with your back. Slowly return to starting position. Do three sets of 10.

Neck Pain And Headaches

Most neck pain and stiffness occurs because the muscles in the chest, the front of the shoulders and the biceps become overworked and shortened. Meanwhile, their opposing muscles in the upper back and back of your shoulders become overstretched and weak, creating a stooped, "forward-shoulder" posture. This leaves the muscles that support the head too weak to do their job, causing neck pain and headaches.

Solution: Strengthen the muscles between your shoulder blades and your shoulder muscles (posterior deltoids). This will pull your shoulders back, shortening and strengthening the muscles that support your head.

To strengthen the muscles between the shoulder blades: Take a resistance band and make a knot in the middle. (Practice the move first without a band, and then choose a strong enough band) Place the knot over the top of a door, then shut the door so the knot is trapped on the other side and the ends of the band hang straight down like handles. Place a chair facing the door, close enough so that when sitting, you can take an end of the band in each hand with your arms straight out in front of you. Grab the ends of the band and, keeping your arms at shoulder height, bend your elbows and bring them straight back, so that your shoulder blades squeeze together. Return to starting position. Do three sets of 10.

To strengthen the posterior deltoids: Stand with your feet a little more than shoulder width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand in front of your thighs. Bend your knees and elbows slightly. Slowly lift both arms out sideways until they are about six inches to the sides of your thighs. Stop at the point just before your shoulder blades start squeezing together. Return slowly to starting position. Do three sets of 10.

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