Muscle of the Month: Levator Scapulae
The levator scapulae muscles lie on either side of your neck and attach to the upper portion of your shoulder blade. The levator scapula (lev scap) is cleverly named after its main action: elevating the scapula (your shoulder blade). It is commonly tight, though it often goes unnoticed since the lev scap is deep to the upper trapezius. (Remember the trapezius?! Refresh your memory here.) Trigger points in the lev scap have different referral patterns than those of the upper traps (see below) and can be the true indicator as to which muscle is the problematic one.
Actions – Elevates scapula and rotates scapula clockwise (when neck is in a fixed position). Laterally rotates and flexes head (when shoulder is fixed).
Common Pain Culprit – Head-forward posture (e.g. at a computer); holding heavy purses or bags.
When the levator scapula is in a lengthened position, as with either of the above pain culprits, and then we engage it, it will need to do excess work, resulting in strain. For example, when we carry something heavy in our arms and then try to lift our shoulders, commonly the lev scap can strain. Think about the times you’ve taken an extra bag of groceries instead of making two trips. That burn in your neck is the lev scap working too hard! When you then try to muscle all those groceries up onto the counter, that’s when strain can happen. Look at the trigger point referral pattern below and you will probably remember a time you’ve felt that exact same pain.
The fix: Stretch and strengthen, and adjust your posture. Stretching the lev scap when you have pain will help the muscle loosen and return to a proper resting state. Strengthening the lev scap is a good preventative measure to allow the muscles to work longer and more effectively, without the strain.
Stretch – A very basic levator scapula stretch, the “sniff your arm pit” stretch, looks like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o6umvnWaRm8
Strength – Basic lev scap strengthening can be done wtih dumbell shrugs.
Dumbell shrugs: hold a small weight in each hand and shrug your shoulders as high as possible. Hold for one count and release slowly. Start with three sets of five, and build up to three sets of 12-15 before moving to a heavier weight.
Adjust your posture – At your desk, think of a string with a balloon on top lifting the top of your head toward the ceiling. Keep your ears centred over your shoulders.
Ask your RMT for assistance assessing your posture and the length and strength of your lev scap, and with any of these exercises.