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  • Dr. Allison Andre, DPT

Are You Neglecting Your Trapezius Muscles? Here's Why You Shouldn't and How to Fix it.

Do you spend most of your day sitting at a desk or staring at a screen? If so, you're not alone. Modern life has made it all too easy to neglect our bodies, particularly our upper body muscles. One of the most commonly neglected muscle groups is the trapezius, which runs from the base of the skull to the middle of the back and shoulders.


The trapezius muscle plays a crucial role in supporting good posture, shoulder function, injury and pain prevention, and overall upper body movement. However, many people neglect their trapezius muscles, leading to issues such as shoulder pain, neck pain, tension headaches, poor posture, and limited range of motion in the shoulders.

In this blog post, we'll explore the importance of the trapezius muscles, why they are often neglected, and how to incorporate stretches and exercises to strengthen and maintain their health. So, let's dive in and unlock the full potential of our upper body!




 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

 

The trapezius muscle is a large, triangular muscle that spans the upper back and neck. It plays an important role in maintaining good posture, supporting the weight of the head, and enabling movement of the shoulders and arms.


The trapezius muscle is divided into three parts: the upper, middle, and lower trapezius. Each part has a unique function and can be affected by different issues, such as tightness or weakness.

In this article, we will explore the upper, middle, and lower trapezius muscles, common issues associated with them, and exercises and stretches that can help alleviate these issues. By understanding the trapezius muscle and how to care for it, we can improve our overall posture and range of motion and reduce the risk of injury.




THE UPPER TRAPEZIUS MUSCLE


 

DESCRIPTION AND LOCATION OF THE UPPER TRAPEZIUS


The upper trapezius muscle originates from the base of the skull, cervical, and thoracic vertebrae, and inserts into the outer end of the clavicle and the acromion process of the scapula. The upper trapezius is responsible for shrugging your shoulders and extending your neck.


However, due to factors such as chronic stress, tension, and poor posture, it is prone to tightness and overuse, leading to discomfort and pain; this muscle is commonly associated with tension and discomfort and is often targeted during massages.


 

COMMON ISSUES RELATED TO UPPER TRAPEZIUS TIGHTNESS


Tightness of the Upper Trapezius is very common, in fact 10-20% of the population suffers from severe chronic Trapezius Myalgia (muscle pain). Some other common impairments include:



CERVICOGENIC HEADACHES AND NECK PAIN


The upper trapezius muscle is often associated with cervicogenic headaches and neck pain because of its attachment to the base of the skull.

When the upper trapezius muscle becomes tight and/or overactive, it can pull on the attachment point at the base of the skull, causing tension and compression in the cervical spine.

This tension can lead to the development of cervicogenic headaches, which are characterized by pain that originates in the neck and radiates to the head.


Upper Trapezius pain
Cervicogenic Headache


POSTURAL IMPAIRMENTS - UPPER CROSSED SYNDROME


Upper crossed syndrome is prevalent among people who spend long hours in a seated position, such as office workers, students, and individuals who frequently use electronic devices; people with poor postural habits, such as slouching or carrying heavy bags on one shoulder.


Upper crossed syndrome is a postural imbalance that is characterized by a combination of tight and overactive muscles in the upper chest, neck, and shoulder regions, as well as weak and underactive muscles in the mid-back and neck.

In this syndrome, the upper trapezius, levator scapulae, and pectoral muscles become tight and overactive, while the lower trapezius, rhomboids, and deep neck flexors become weak and underactive. This imbalance can lead to a forward head posture, rounded shoulders, and increased tension in the neck and shoulders.



DECREASED RANGE OF MOTION OF THE SHOULDERS


The upper trapezius muscle attaches to the scapula (shoulder blade), and when it becomes tight, it can cause the scapula to elevate or shrug upwards. This upward movement of the scapula can limit the ability of the shoulder joint to move freely and can cause pain or discomfort during shoulder movements.


The upper trapezius can also cause excessive tension in the shoulder girdle, which can limit the mobility of the shoulder joint. This tension can cause the shoulder to feel stiff or "locked up," and may make it difficult to perform movements that require a full range of motion.

Often, the upper trap compensates for weakness or dysfunction in other muscles around the shoulder joint. For example, if the rotator cuff muscles are weak or injured, the upper trapezius may try to compensate by working harder to stabilize the shoulder, leading to tight and overactive traps along decreased range of motion in the shoulders.


 

STRETCHES FOR UPPER TRAPEZIUS TIGHTNESS

Stretching your upper trapezius frequently is a simple solution to alleviate tightness and discomfort. Taking a brief pause during the day to stretch your neck can be both fast and convenient. One of the easiest methods to stretch your upper trapezius is by following these steps:

  1. Begin in sitting or standing with good posture.

  2. Place your right hand on top of your head and gently pull your head towards your right shoulder until you feel a stretch in the left side of your neck and upper back.

  3. Hold the stretch for 20-30 seconds.

  4. Repeat on the other side.

  5. Perform 2-3 sets on each side.

  6. BONUS - to deepen the stretch and/or to stretch in a slightly different area, angle your head down towards your arm pit (example in the middle picture below).



Other great holistic tools you can use to relieve upper trapezius tightness include a percussion therapy gun and trigger point therapy tools like lacrosse balls and tennis balls. PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) is also an effective stretching technique to use to stretch the upper trapezius.



 



MIDDLE AND LOWER TRAPEZIUS MUSCLES


 

DESCRIPTION AND LOCATION OF THE MIDDLE AND LOWER TRAPEZIUS

The middle trapezius muscle runs from the spine to the scapula and is primarily responsible for retracting, or pulling back, the scapula toward the spine.

This muscle helps with movements such as pulling your shoulders back and down and keeping your shoulders in proper alignment with your spine.

The lower trapezius muscle, on the other hand, runs from the lower thoracic vertebrae to the scapula and is primarily responsible for depressing, or pulling down, the scapula.

This muscle is involved in movements such as reaching your arm down and back and stabilizing the scapula during overhead activities.

Together, the middle and lower trapezius muscles work to stabilize and move the scapula, helping to support and protect the shoulder joint. The are often weakened due to poor posture, lack of exercise, or injury. Strengthening the middle and lower trapezius are important to improve posture, reduce the risk of shoulder and neck injuries, improve shoulder mobility and reduce the risk of shoulder impingement.


Postural impairments
Muscular Imbalances Leads to Postural Shifts
 

COMMON ISSUES RELATED TO MIDDLE AND LOWER TRAPEZIUS WEAKNESS


The middle and lower trapezius are more prone to weakness than tightness, often due to tightness in the upper trapezius leading to imbalances in the muscles and the length tension relationship. Weakness leads to:


POOR POSTURE

The middle and lower trapezius are responsible for stabilizing and retracting the scapula (shoulder blade). When weak, the scapula may not be properly stabilized and may tilt forward and downward, contributing to a slouched posture.

This posture is commonly referred to as "forward head posture" or "rounded shoulders", which can lead to neck, shoulder and back pain.

COMPENSATORY MOVEMENT PATTERNS

hen the middle trapezius is weak, other muscles will compensate leading to muscle imbalances and inefficient movement patterns.


SHOULDER INSTABILITY

The middle and lower trapezius help to stabilize the scapula and keep it in proper alignment with the rest of the body. When weakened, the scapula may be more likely to move around or "wing out" during movement, which can increase the risk of shoulder instability and injury.


SHOULDER IMPINGEMENT

The lower trapezius is also involved in depressing the scapula during overhead movements. Without this muscle's support, the shoulder joint may be more prone to impingement, or pinching of the soft tissues between the humerus (upper arm bone) and the acromion (a bony process on the scapula).


 

EXERCISES FOR MIDDLE TRAPEZIUS AND LOWER TRAPEZIUS WEAKNESS


Strengthening the middle and lower trapezius through targeted exercises is essential in improving posture and reducing the risk of related problems. Some great exercises are:

PRONE T-Y-I EXERCISE

  1. Lie face down on a mat with your arms extended out in front of you, palms facing the floor.

  2. Lift your chest, arms, and legs off the mat, keeping your neck in a neutral position.

  3. Bring your arms up to form a "T" shape, squeezing your shoulder blades together and keeping your palms facing the floor.

  4. From the "T" position, move your arms up to form a "Y" shape, keeping your shoulder blades squeezed together and your palms facing the floor.

  5. Finally, move your arms up to form an "I" shape, keeping your shoulder blades squeezed together and your palms facing each other.

  6. Slowly lower your chest, arms, and legs back down to the mat.

  7. Repeat for 10-12 repetitions, 2-3 sets.


SCAPULAR RETRACTION EXERCISE

  1. Sit or stand with your back straight and your arms at your sides.

  2. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and hold for 3-5 seconds.

  3. Release and repeat for 10-12 repetitions, 2-3 sets.

  4. This is an easy exercise you can perform anywhere and anytime of the day. Taking posture breaks during work and squeezing your shoulder blades together can be very effective!

EXERCISE FOR MIDDLE TRAPEZIUS
SCAPULAR SQUEEZES

PRONE HORIZONTAL ABDUCTION EXERCISE

  1. Lie face down on a mat with your arms extended out to the sides, palms facing the floor.

  2. Lift your chest, arms, and legs off the mat, keeping your neck in a neutral position.

  3. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and lift your arms up off the mat, keeping them straight and in line with your shoulders.

  4. Lower your arms back down to the mat.

  5. Repeat for 10-12 repetitions, 2-3 sets.

Prone Horizontal Abduction Exercise
Prone Horizontal Abduction Exercise

FACE PULLS (WITH A RESISTANCE BAND)

  1. Set up the resistance band to a sturdy anchor point, such as a door handle, pole, or any other secure surface at chest height.

  2. Begin the movement by pulling the resistance band towards your face, keeping your elbows high and in line with your shoulders.

  3. Squeeze your shoulder blades together at the end of the movement and hold for a second or two.

  4. Return the resistance band to the starting position, maintaining tension in the band throughout the movement.

  5. Repeat for 10-12 repetitions, 2-3 sets.


EXERCISE TIPS

  • Keep your core engaged throughout the movements to maintain proper posture.

  • Avoid shrugging your shoulders or using momentum to complete the movement.

  • Ensure proper form to avoid compensatory movement patterns.

  • Think about the muscle you are trying to engage to improve your brain body connection and optimize your exercise.


 

The trapezius muscle is a crucial muscle group that plays a significant role in posture, shoulder function, and overall upper body movement. The upper trapezius muscle can become tight due to prolonged sitting or poor posture, while the middle and lower trapezius muscles can become weak due to lack of exercise or compensatory patterns of movement.

Fortunately, there are various stretches and exercises you can do to alleviate tightness in the upper trapezius muscle and strengthen the middle and lower trapezius muscles. By incorporating these exercises into your routine, you can improve your posture, reduce shoulder pain, and increase your range of motion in the shoulders and unlock your full body's potential!


 

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REFERENCES

1. Biondi, DM. "Cervicogenic headache: mechanisms, evaluation, and treatment strategies" Journal of Osteopathic Medicine, vol. 100, no. s9, 2000, pp. 7-14. https://doi.org/10.7556/jaoa.2000.20035


2. Moore, Michele K. "Upper crossed syndrome and its relationship to cervicogenic headache." Journal of manipulative and physiological therapeutics 27.6 (2004): 414-420.


3. Park, Sam-Ho, and Myung-Mo Lee. "Effects of lower trapezius strengthening exercises on pain, dysfunction, posture alignment, muscle thickness and contraction rate in patients with neck pain; randomized controlled trial." Medical science monitor: international medical journal of experimental and clinical research 26 (2020): e920208-1.


4. Petersen, Shannon M., and Sarah N. Wyatt. "Lower trapezius muscle strength in individuals with unilateral neck pain." journal of orthopaedic & sports physical therapy 41.4 (2011): 260-265.






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