Living With Chronic Pain

How to Perform Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Stress, anxiety and chronic pain make our muscles tense. Initially it’s in preparation to a perceived threat the body believes requires a response to either fight or run away. But when a release doesn’t happen, the muscles stay in perpetual spasm. It doesn’t take much to start the cycle- problems at work, financial worries, family issues, or insomnia- and the reflexive clenching, shrugged shoulders, hunched over back, increased heart rate and breathing become second nature. There are many ways to prevent this. Progressive muscle relation, or Jacobson’s relaxation technique, is another great addition to that list. 

It was developed by Dr. Edmund Jacobson in the 1920’s. Tensing and releasing stressed muscles encourages calm and relaxation from daily stressors. Most of us don’t even realize we are in a constant fight or flight state. It’s also been proven to improve digestion, sleep, anxiety, pain, and fatigue.

Last week I discussed why it’s beneficial. Now let’s discuss how it’s done.


  • Do not use on any acute or healing injuries without consulting your provider first. It may cause a pulling sensation but never pain.
  • Minimize distractions. Find a quiet spot where the lighting isn’t harsh, and noise is minimal. Turn off your phone.
  • Get comfortable. Wear loose clothes. Take off your shoes. Lie or sit.
  • Close your eyes.
  • Set aside 20-30 minutes. No time? Work on the worst areas first.
  • Follow whatever pattern works for you e.g. head to toe, side to side.
  • Don’t start after a large meal or using intoxicants like alcohol.
  • Have a blanket close by. The more relaxed we become the cooler we get. The added warmth will help relaxation.
  • Set aside time 3-4 times a week or as needed.
  • Start when you’re feeling calm. It may surprise you to see how stressed the body remains even when we believe we’re relaxed.

Progressive muscle relaxation is the process where specific focus is directed at different muscle groups to tense and relax them. In this way you’ll not only stop spasms in those areas but understand what that muscle feels like tense and then relaxed. With practice this technique can be used any where, any time a muscle hurts. For each muscle group, breathe in deeply (but never hold your breath) as you tense for 10 -15 seconds then breathe out as you relax  and release the tension for 10-15 seconds. If it’s too painful, stop and seek medical attention. It can be done in any order but should include all major body parts.

Let’s get started


Raise up the eyebrows.

Open and close the jaw. Pretend to yawn. Clench and grind.

Pucker your lips, smile.

Squeeze your eyes shut.

Arch your eyebrows.


Wink, blink.

Make a sour face- squeeze eyes closed while pressing lips together.


Gently rotate to the side until your chin touches the shoulder if possible, and hold 10 seconds.

Gently place your ear as close to your shoulder as possible.

Chin up, then down.

Hands and wrist 

Make a tight fist and release. 

Make a tight fist and bring your arms into your chest.

Spread your fingers wide apart then together.

Make a claw.

Rotate in all directions up, down, sideways.


Extend/ flex the wrist and pull gently toward your body until you feel a pull in the forearm. Add a tight fist to increase the pull.

Bring hand behind your head and feel the pull in the tricep muscle as you tighten and release.


Flex at the elbow towards the shoulders and tighten the bicep muscle. See it bulge and relax.

Extend arms and lift elbows to feel a pull in the triceps.

Shrug the shoulders and feel the tension in the shoulder blades and neck.

Bring your arms straight above your head with fingers pointing to the ceiling, then back to your side.


Breath in deeply, expanding your chest as much as possible. Then breathe out every last bit of breath.

Pull arm across to the other side of the body and feel the pull in your chest and shoulder blade.

Bring your hands together behind the back and gently pull up and out to feel a pull in the chest.


Bring arms behind your back, thrusting chest out and push shoulder blades together.

On hands and knees arch and then make your back concave.

On your knees, face down, stretch hands as far as you can to feel a stretch in the entire thoracic and lumbar spine.

Arch your back away from the floor or chair.

On your back, bend one or both legs and bring the knees to your chest.


Suck in your belly, hold and release.

Lie on back, bend knees and bring your entire head off the floor several inches as you look at the ceiling. Put hands behind your head to support your neck and feel the pull in your abdomen.


In the above position pull your bottom off the ground and tighten your butt cheeks.

Tighten the rectal muscles as though trying to stop from urinating or deficating.


Tighten thigh muscles.

If seated, push heels into the floor. If lying down, bring heels a few inches off the ground while extending, then flexing at the ankles.

With straight legs, extend your foot and feel the pull in your calves.

Move knees together then apart.

Go onto your toes, heels.

Ankles and feet

Rotate ankles in all directions- up, down and sideways.

Curl and extend toes toes.

There are several places you can tune in to for help and guidance. Check out guided audio recording on YouTube, wellness podcasts, mobile apps like Headspace. Try a free recording offered by McMaster University.

With practice, learning the difference between a tense muscle and one that’s relaxed will become easier, making it possible to keep those spasms from starting or persisting.









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