It’s Meet Your Muscle Monday (I swear I wrote this yesterday but was too busy living to post)
I’d like to introduce every massage therapist’s friend and foe, the Levator Scapulae. Friend because it will always bring us business with clients coming in gripping the painful spot where their upper back meets their neck, and foe because the habits that create it’s painful problems are so persistent that lasting relief can be hard to acheive. The levator scapula’s main job is to lift up the shoulder blade and help in bending your neck sideways. When it comes to the first job, it’s a bit of a workaholic and tends to get trigger points that can create headaches and neck pain from it’s long hours.
First, you need to picture your spine. It’s like a stack of children’s building blocks (vertebrae) with squashed marshmallows (intervertebral discs) between them. The many muscles of the neck not only serve to move the upper portion of this stack, but also act as ‘guy wires’ stabilizing the tower holding up your big head. No offense, but it’s a ten pound sphere balancing on the end of a hockey stick. Or as Mike Myers said in “So I Married An Axe Murderer”, “Look at the thing, it’s like an orange on a toothpick.” Needless to say, the toothpick needs some help.
Enter the hardworking and highly-prone-to-problems Levator Scapulae. Most neck muscles move from the vertebrae to stable attachments like the collarbone, ribs or back down to other vertebrae. The Levator, however, starts from either side of the top four vertebrae below the skull and attaches to it’s insertion at the top of the middle corner of the triangular shoulder blade. Midway through the path, the four attachments form one muscle, flip around and fix to the scapula (imagine it like a calligraphy stroke). The scapula (shoulder blade) is a highly movable, ‘floating’ bone held in place only by the muscles it provides a base for. This mobility makes the levator muscle the most vulnerable neck muscle to getting much too contracted or much too stretched, making for maligned vertebrae, compressed discs and the burny aching pain so many seek relief from.
How does it get overstretched or too contracted? Here are a few common problems:
Pillow Problems - we spend 1/3 of our 24 hours with our neck in a fixed, unconscious position. Pillowing that keeps the head outside of the neutral position for that time will cement the neck into problematic positions. If you’re a back sleeper, give your head a cushion for it’s placement but make sure your eyes are pointing up, not out. If you’re a side sleeper, the pillow should fill the exact amount of space that your shoulder and arm create between it and the bed. Remember: neutral position.
Anterior Head Carriage - holding our head in front of our body makes the 10lbs of weight that much more of a burden on the neck muscles and forces them to contract against the stretch. Not only do they tire and become overstretched, but they develop headache causing trigger points from the overworking. I tell my clients to imagine a helium balloon attached to the top of their head, lifting off of the ground (their shoulders). Keep your chin in, walk with your chest in front of your face and let your shoulders drop back and down.
Elevated Arms - everywhere we go we have our arms on armrests, floating up to use keyboards (I just had to check myself!), resting on tables or desks, holding steering wheels, etc. Adjust your position so your shoulders can hang back and down, be it in the car or in the office, so your levator isn’t sitting all day in a shortened position it will later have a hard time coming out of. Back when phones were bigger, holding them between the shoulder and the ear was a problem leading to pain but not so much anymore. Either way, avoid that too and use a headset or bluetooth.
Stress ‘Turtling’ - Proponents of the mind/body connection (including yours truly) suggest that the levator will elevate our shoulders to help us draw our head into our body, subconsciously protecting ourselves from the stressors in our environment. Check your shoulders when you’re experiencing negative emotions and remind yourself repeatedly to let them ‘melt’ or ‘sink’ back to their neutral position. This may take some practice. It did for me!
As always, I recommend massage as the best way to work out the chronic problems caused by our levator scapulae, but it is the habits we have in using it that will recreate them everytime. Trigger points at it’s origin and insertion will cause pain around the entire shoulder complex as well as headaches far away in the front of your head for some. Be more mindful of this muscle and give it a break! It will thank you with pain relief and relaxation.
Hope you’ve enjoyed getting to know the infamous Levator Scapulae and creating a greater understanding and awareness of what’s going on inside your body. Next muscle, next Monday!