Get Your Shoulders out of Your Ears!


Ever been stressed out? Then you know your shoulders get tight and achy, and sometimes you may even get headaches. Maybe the biggest contributor to a tight neck caused from stress is a large muscle known as trapezius.

Trapezius is so large that it’s actually divided into three parts: upper, middle, and lower trapezius. Upper trap is the part that spans the neck. It attaches to the back of your head and drapes down the back of your neck, connecting to the backs of the vertebrae in your neck, and connects to the top of your shoulders/upper back on your shoulder blades. The muscle makes you shrug your shoulders and turn your head.

When stressed out we tend to activate this muscle and hold our shoulders up and rolled forward. Chronic stress or tension will keep this muscle from turning off. When this muscle doesn’t turn off a few things happen, which may produce symptoms you feel:

– The muscle begins to tire. You will feel it as a burning sensation.

– The muscle begins to cramp. You will feel it as tightness and achiness.

– Prolonged activation may lead to trigger points in the muscle. You will feel it as very point-specific areas of tenderness and hardness in the muscle. If you press that area with your fingers you may feel the pain shoot up into your head, like a headache.

– Your neck will not turn as far as it once did. This is caused from the muscle shortening due to fibrous (hard, strong) connective tissue developing in the muscle. This will happen to muscles that are not stretched enough, especially if they’re being over-used. When the range of motion of your neck is restricted, you will start to affect the individual joints of the neck, causing them to become fixated, or restricted as well. This compounds your problem, and years down the road you realize you can barely turn your neck half as much as you could when you were younger.

Clinically, I see this in about 85% of my patients. This is a very “first-world” issue and is part of something bigger called “upper crossed syndrome.” I’ll talk about that in a future post. Upper trapezius is one part of a bigger syndrome that affects your whole upper body.

How to combat an over-activated upper trapezius?

As a chiropractor, adjusting is my first line of defense. Moving stuck joints relays information from your body to the spinal cord to the brain letting your brain know “these joints are moving good again, no need to keep trying to get them moving, they’re good now,” and the brain will stop trying to activate trapezius and other muscles in order to move the stuck joints. Adjusting also helps stretch trapezius and surrounding muscles that may have been roped into over-activation,  and may break up hard connective tissue that has formed.

Assisted or self-stretching and soft tissue (ie. massage) work helps to further break up hard tissue.

Therapeutic exercises to do at home help to re-train muscles. In order to counteract upper trap, you need to activate the middle and lower trapezius, as well as rhomboids and latissimus dorsi. When these muscles are all firing properly, upper trap will begin to turn off. The stronger the other muscles get, the more relaxed upper trap can become. Wall angels, back flies, and lat pull-downs are my favorite exercises to have patients do.

Think you may need some upper trapezius TLC? Try this: let your arms hang to your sides right now. Lower your shoulders toward the ground–imagine someone is pushing on the tops of your shoulders toward the ground, but you move your shoulders yourself. Do you feel a stretch on the tops/back of your shoulders or sides of your neck? Now while holding this position, tilt your head to one side. Feel a stretch on the opposite side of your neck? Now tilt and turn your head and look down to the floor. This is a deep trapezius stretch. If you find this hurts or causes a headache, you would very likely benefit from self-stretching, strengthening your other back muscles, and getting adjusted.

Whaddya think?