Most people know that the muscle that sits just on top of their shoulder is called the trapezius muscle, but few people realize how immense the muscle actually is.
You actually have two trapezius muscles, or “traps,” (one on each side of your spine), and they are huge. They attach at the base of your skull, the spinous processes of the vertebrae C7 (the one that protrudes at the base of your posterior neck) through the T12 (which attaches to your twelfth and bottom rib), and the lateral edge of your shoulder where your clavicle (collar bone) connects to the acromion process of your scapula.
Actions of the Trapezius
The traps are broken down into three sections as far as the actions they perform. The upper fibers that connect to your skull, cervical vertebrae (cervical means neck) and outer shoulder are responsible for elevation and upward rotation of your scapula, and extension of your neck. In other words, this section of your traps allows you to shrug your shoulders, reach your arm out to the side, or look upward.
The middle fibers of the scapula attach to your outer shoulder and the upper half of your thoracic vertebrae. Thoracic means the area of your chest, so your thoracic vertebrae are the ones that are directly behind your chest, and they connect to your ribs. They adduct your scapula, or lift it off of its resting place over the posterior ribs. This action makes movement of the shoulder joint more fluid.
The lower fibers connect to the lower thoracic vertebrae and they depress your scapula (the opposite of shrugging your shoulders) and aid the upper fibers in upward rotation of the scapula.
Dysfunction of the Trapezius
The trapezius is an important muscle to understand, as it is commonly negatively affected by poor posture, and can also cause pain referral, which will be a blog post for another time.
We discussed posture in a previous post. We also discussed how pain in your upper back can be caused by your pectoral muscles. In short, forward head posture causes the muscles of the front of your chest and neck to shorten, thereby causing the muscles of the back to overstretch to make up the difference. This causes pain that may or may not be constant.
The trapezius muscle also refers pain to different areas of the body. In short, this means that a trigger point in the trapezius may cause someone to feel pain in a different area of the body. A trigger point is a knot in the connective tissue. It is hyper irritable and sends numerous pain signals to the spine. There are numerous areas to which a trigger point in the trapezius may refer pain, but that is to be expected from such a vast mass of muscle.
The upper fibers of the trapezius can cause stiffness or pain in the neck or behind your eyes. It can cause tension headaches, or pain in the face and jaw. Trigger points in the middle fibers cause pain in your mid back and at the top of your shoulder joint. They can cause aches at the base of your skull, or a burning sensation around your spine. In the lower fibers of the trapezius, trigger points can cause pain in the mid back, neck, and upper shoulder. It can refer pain in the shoulder blade that travels down the arm and into your ring and little fingers, or it can cause headaches at the base of your skull.
The best way to relieve pain from any muscle is to take care to use proper posture. You may also try stretching your trapezius muscle. You can do this by keeping your shoulders in place, but bringing your chin forward toward your neck. You can also bring your ear toward the shoulder and depress your opposite shoulder. Click here for a list of other stretches for your trapezius muscle.
I wouldn’t be a massage therapist if I didn’t also recommend receiving massage. The most obvious way to relieve muscle tension is to let someone who knows a thing or two about muscles explore the area, find where the tension originates, and use proven techniques to relieve said tension.
Cover Image by MYPROTEIN
Forward Head Posture: The SCM & the Trapezius Muscles by Johnathan Fitzgordon
Trapezius Muscle by getbodysmart.com
Trapezius Trigger Point Referral Patterns by triggerpointrelief.com