This Month's Muscle - The Trapezius
The Trapezius is one of those muscles that most of us know fairly well. Well, at least a part of it...
Where Is It?
It's a very superficial, flat muscle that extends from the the base of the skull down to the shoulder and also along the spine. (For all you anatomy aficionados out there are very specific origin and insertion points that can be found here.)
It is divided into 3 parts: upper, middle and lower and each section is responsible for different actions or movements. For this article I'd like to focus more on the upper fibers.
This muscle lays right under the skin. There are several other muscles underneath it that, like the Trapezius, are responsible for and help with similar movements, but I'll leave those for another time.
What Does It Do?
The upper fibers help lift the shoulders (elevate) and extend the neck back and to the side, the lower fibers help pull down the shoulders (depress) and the middle fibers help pull back (retract) the shoulder blades.
No muscle works in isolation so there are always several muscles involved with any of these movements.
Ok, hands up... how many of you have tight, stiff and achy shoulders? WHOA!! That's like ALL of you!!
Yup, whenever we have tights shoulders and/or necks usually the little ol' Trapezius is involved. But, like I said before, no muscle works in isolation so there are likely some other co-conspirators lurking in the shadows helping Trapezius get up to no good. But let's go after the mob-boss.
Anyone who spends lots of time at their computer or on their shiny new iPhone will be engaging the Trapezius in some way. Again, let's face it, that's like ALL of you. In fact you're doing it right now. If you're on your phone chances are you're stretching the upper fibers of your Trapezius right now.
Do me a favour, stop reading, lift your head up to normal eye level and then extend your head back to look up.
Ok you can stop now... people are starting to stare.
You've just used the upper fibers of your Trapezius (and some other muscles too). When the upper fibers contract it pulls the head up and then back.
So if you're constantly looking down, say at your really cool new smartphone, you're upper Trapezius is constantly in a stretched state. I think this is actually a big issue for thousands of people right now in this age of the iPhone. I will devote a whole post to that issue alone one day but let's just say that over-stretching a muscle can cause just as many problems as a tight muscle.
Another common problem is a tight upper Trapezius.
How many of you feel stressed. Yup, that's about what I thought. Stress is responsible for all sorts of problems in our bodies and tight muscles is a big one. Stress is a product of the whole 'fight or flight' mechanism. Since most of us don't flee our desks and offices every time we feel pressure we subconsciously go into fight mode. Now most of us don't actually have fist fights at work either (I hope) so what happens is all that energy get caught in our muscles. Our muscles tighten, literally ready to sprint into action and when that's not realised the energy gets stuck. What is actually happening is that we are slightly flexing our muscles, engaging the contraction of the muscles fibers. Imagine being at the gym and just holding a very light weight in a contraction. The muscle is in a constant state of flex. Eventually the muscles will get tired and tight. This is what happens to our muscles when you're stressed.
If you feel stressed chances are your shoulders are going to be creeping up towards your ears. Just take a second now and notice where your shoulders are. Now consciously let your shoulders drop. How far did they drop? If it was enough to notice you're probably holding on to some tension and stress in the upper Trapezius.
How To Make it Feel Better
So what can you do to help let all that tension go? Well, it's so easy to say 'don't get stressed' but that is a whole other ball game and not for a this blog. I'm more interested in actually doing something right now to help you. Of course I should just tell you to come have a massage (and that is a great solution as it's so much better letting someone else do the work while you relax) but you're reading this now so let's see what we can do to help you.
It really helps to apply pressure to a tight muscle. There are several ways you can do this right now. Using your opposite hand place your fingers on the bulky part of your shoulder (between the base of your neck and where the shoulder meets the arm). Dig your fingertips into the muscle and apply pressure. Pull down on the muscle and feel for any lumps or knots. If you do find some dig in with your fingertips and either make little circular movements or pull forward, working across the muscle. You can also apply static pressure. Find the knot and just dig in and hold it. Keep the pressure on for about 10 seconds. Eventually the pain will ease. At that point you can apply a bit more pressure. Do this about 3 or 4 times and then slowly release the pressure and gently rub the area you just worked. Of course doing self massage always builds a bit of tension in the arm and hand that is doing the massage so do be aware of this.
Stretching is also great for tight muscles. A great stretch that I often share with my clients is easy and very effective. Standing next to a heavy table, or kitchen counter, using the hand on the same side as your tight shoulder twist your arm, so that the elbow points outwards and grip under the edge of the table/countertop with your fingertips. Now slightly lean away from the table, keeping a straight arm and let the weight of your body stretch your upper trapezius. You can increase the stretch by turning your head away from the table and dropping your chin towards your chest. You should feel the stretch right across the top of your shoulder. Hold this for about 20 seconds and then repeat. If you want an even deeper stretch you can use your free hand to massage the muscle (as described above) while doing the stretch.
Those are just some quick tips to help release the upper Trapezius. As I mentioned, getting a proper massage can really help to release chronic tension in this area but if you’re in need of a quick fix I hope the above helps.
As always if you’d like to book a treatment with me just give me a ring on 07788 411 767 and I’ll be happy to help.
In the meantime keep those shoulders down and happy.