By Mark Baker
As a massage therapist, shoulder and neck pain are two of the most common complaints i’ll hear. Even before I even lay a hand on the body there are a few areas I can pretty much guarantee will be holding excess tension. Including the neck, these would be the back of the legs (hamstrings), QL’s (lower back stabilisers), Occipitals (base of the skull) and Upper Traps (Back of the neck and down into the middle of the back). And many people would ask why, or how? Well, because of a few things most people have in common…Such as Lifestyle, overworking at the gym, work stress, family stress, sitting at a desk for 50 hrs a week stress! And all this excess stress has to go somewhere, or be stored somewhere. And our muscles are often the receptacle for that somewhere. The places I highlighted above just seem to be the focal points that tension seems to hold over time. There are exceptions to this…but of all these places, often the single muscle that seems to be over tense is the Upper Trapezius.
Trapezius pain is a common problem linked with neck, shoulder and upper back tension, tightness or stiffness. It is a large, broad, flat muscle that covers much of the upper back, playing a vital role in posture, shoulder blade movement as well as movements of the neck and shoulder. The trapezius muscle originates from the base of the skull, down the neck through the ligamentum nuchae and from the spinous processes of the thoracic spine. The muscle extends out the width of the shoulder attaching to the clavicle (collarbone), acromion and spine of scapula – a ridge on the back of the shoulder blade. There are three distinct sections of trapezius comprising the Upper, Middle and Lower Traps.
The main function of trapezius is to stabilise and move the scapula (shoulder blade) and it plays a vital role in posture, holding the spine upright and supporting the weight of the head and arm. This is partly because contrary to popular belief the arms are not tethered to the body by bone to bone via ligaments. The only thing holding your arm in the right place are the muscles that hold the shoulder blade in-place, with the arm just an extension of this.
Other important functions of trapezius include:
-Neck Movements: tilting and turning the head; and
-Shoulder Movements: elevates (shrugs) and depresses (drops) the shoulders, twists the upper arm inwards, assists with throwing action
Playing such an important role it is not surprising the traps can become tight a person can develop symptoms of pain. These can include:
-Trapezius Trigger Points: Small, tight, hypersensitive nodules commonly known as muscle knots. Upper trapezius trigger points are one of the most common location of knots in the body
-Chronically Tight Trapezius: Usually from prolonged poor posture e.g. sitting slouched at work desk
-Overactive Traps: Often related to stress and anxiety
-Trapezius Muscle Strain: Overloading or overstretching the muscle can result in a strained traps, such as lifting too much weight at the gym can result in a strained trapezius
-Tension Headaches: Tight traps are a common cause of tension headaches, where the Trapezius muscle can trap the accessory and occipital nerve causing a throbbing headache from the base of the skull, to the top of the head and forehead.
Overactive or tight traps are the most common cause of trapezius pain and typically causes tension and soreness across the back of the shoulders. There may be a burning pain in the trapezius muscle or a deep, dull aching pain. A tight trapezius can also limit neck and shoulder movements and affect how the shoulder blade moves. Poor posture is probably the most common cause of trapezius muscle pain where people spend long periods hunched over their computer or smart phone develop chronically tight trapezius muscles, which then refer into neck, shoulder and upper back pain.
So How can trapezius pain be treated when it arises? Here are a few options for you:
Heat: Heat is great for general relief of muscle tension, aches and pains so is a god place to start. Place a hot water bottle or hot wheat bag or heat pad over the painful area for 10-15 minutes. This will help to relax the muscle and tease out any tension
Stretching: stretching the arm across the front of the body will stretch the lower part of the traps, while pulling the neck forward will stretch the upper and middle portions. Stretching the neck laterally will also stretch the upper and middle traps that connects the collar bone and shoulder
Self-massage or massage ball: Trigger points and muscle tension in in the upper traps are also most a guaranteed for most people A great way to reduce trapezius pain from muscle tightness, muscle spasm or trapezius trigger points is to perform some self-massage or use a ball to massage over the area. These can be released at home using a massage ball or your finger using sustained pressure or a kneading technique. If using a ball, the best way to reach this area is either laying down, or if that is too much pressure (or not practical) stand up with your back up against a wall where you can exercise more control over the desired pressure.
Some trigger points however can be stubborn and take a few sessions to release, especially if the injury is chronic or related to lifestyle/postural habits that are ingrained. If you can release these points at home using basic techniques an experienced massage therapist can assist using manual therapy or using dry needling techniques.
And finally, Rest and Recuperate. Often once of the best solutions to ease muscle tension and stress is
simple rest. Taking a break from your normal routine, getting a massage or changing your sleep position can dramatically improve the body ability to release stored tension patterns. Hope this resonates and as always, we are here to help as needed!