Shoulder and Neck Tension

Every week we have many patients coming to our clinic complaining of tension in their shoulders and neck. The most common culprit of this very common problem is over activity of a muscle called the upper trapezuis, or “traps” for short.

The upper traps (there is also a middle and lower part) run from the tip of your shoulder to the base of your skull and also attaches to the back of the spine of the neck and the upper most thoracic spine. It forms the contour of your neck and shoulders.

So why is this muscle such a common problem? Well there are 3 main reasons. These are: mechanical stress; emotional stress and reflex inhibition.

Mechanically stress:

As you are be aware, we sit a lot. Most of us, pretty much all day. Sitting forces us to adopt a forward flexed posture where our head drifts forward and our shoulders round.

Your head is a heavy structure, about the weight of a bowling ball. When it moves forward leverage exaggerates the stress placed on your neck and shoulders. The upper traps are the muscles that have to hold your head up and stop it falling onto your chest.

Emotional stress:

When we are under stress our body goes into fight/flight. It doesn’t matter if the stress is physical (being attacked), imagined (watching a scary movie) or emotional (having a fight with a loved one). When we are fight/flight a cascade of processes kick in. The relevant element here is that we bring our shoulders up and forward to protect our throat. The muscle responsible for this is the upper traps. This of the end of a stressful day, do you remember having tight shoulders and neck?

Reflex Inhibition:

This is the process where one muscle gets switched off when the muscle that performs the opposite movement contracts e.g. the tricep relaxing as the bicep contracts and you can then bend your elbow. This reflex is automatic. When our upper traps contract because of mechanical/emotional stress, our mid and lower traps automatically relax. This perpetuates the problem as there is no way for the upper traps to relax without external help.

Self help:

Neck Tension exercise
A very effective exercise is called ‘The Dumb Waiter’. Imagine you are holding a tray with a plate of food in each hand. Now assume this position while standing tall, neck long and your shoulders pulled down away from your ears.

Neck Tension exercise
Now slowly separate the “trays” as if you have offering food to people on both sides of you at the same time. Take the movement to your end range and hold this position for about 6 seconds. Repeat 10 times and do this 3 times a day. What this exercise does is active the lower traps which through reflex inhibition relaxes the upper traps.

I hope you find this information useful. Getting a better understanding of your body is vital for long term health and wellbeing

Get well, Stay Well.