By Gavin Buehler, RMT
Disclaimer: Please consult your healthcare provider before engaging in any of the activities or suggestions that are highlighted in this article/video.
During this time of the season the coaches and therapists at Active Life tend to notice a rise in complaints surrounding the neck and shoulder area. Generally it’s a little more stiffness than usual or mild “tweaks” frequently around the posterolateral (side/back) area of the neck.
So why the sudden rise in these occurrences during this time of the year? Our posture seems to change with the colder weather and maybe even from the stresses that may have been incurred over the holidays. We channel our inner turtle power (everyone knows Raphael was the coolest Ninja Turtle) and manage to suck our heads into our protective shells between our shoulders, usually with our chins poked forward, and with added stress our breathing becomes shallow adding more to strain to some of the neck musculature that assists in breathing. Spending more time in this type of posture can make the neck and shoulder area more susceptible to these aches and injuries.
To understand why this is happening we need to take a closer look at the functional anatomy of these muscles, and since there’s a lot of them, I’m going to focus in on a muscle that I’ve found to garner the most complaints, the levator scapula. This muscle takes a lot of abuse and is one of the most common reasons why I see people on my table.
As you can see in the diagram, the levator scapula originates from the transverse processes of C1-C4 in your neck and attaches to the superior aspect of the medial border on your scapula (shoulder blade). Looking at the fiber direction and attachment points, we can see that its functions include scapular elevation (lifts shoulder blade up), scapular downward rotation (rotates shoulder blade down) and ipsilateral cervical flexion and rotation (rotates and flexes neck to the same side). The most prominent action is the downward rotation of the scapula and it’s important to recognize this along with the cervical attachment points due to the impact this can have on overall shoulder movement. Explanation is provided in the video along with a demonstration of actions.
When we’re in a forward head carriage postural position, this puts tension on the levator scapula pulling the shoulder blade into downward rotation. This is generally the opposite movement of where we want our shoulder blade to go for the majority of our daily activities seeing as they are performed with our arms in front of our bodies where upward rotation of the scapula is required. So we have a muscle that’s connected to our neck that’s pulling in the opposite direction we’re trying to go with our arms, inhibiting optimal movement of our shoulder causing compensatory muscle activation and firing patterns.
The postural placement of our head can interfere with the range of motion in our shoulders. So if our heads are forward and our shoulders a little shrugged up and we go and try to do anything with our arms, such as reaching for a door handle or shoveling, we’re putting added strain on a muscle that’s already in a stretched position making it easy to “tweak.”
Be conscious of your posture and stand tall and proud with your ear in line with your shoulder to minimize your risk of injury and maximize your shoulder movement.