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Stiff Neck? Blame Levator Scapula

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The Levator Scapula starts out as four little muscles attached to the sides of the first four vertabrae in your neck. Then they join together into one muscle and end up attached to the top of your shoulder blade. There is a levator scapula muscle on both sides of your neck.

This isn’t the biggest muscle on the neck, but it sure does a lot of work!  Like it says on the tin, Levator Scapulae elevates your scapula, aka the shoulder blade. Every time you shrug your shoulders, the levator scapula is working. Levator Scapulae also turns your neck on the same side. So if you want to look over your left shoulder, your left levator scapula is engaged.  Along with other muscles at the back of the neck, levator scapula stabilizes your neck. When you are looking down to read or write, the levator scapula prevents your head from flopping forward onto your chest.

Areas of Levator Scapula pain

Causes of Pain – Elevated Shoulders

Every time we raise our shoulders, we engage the levator scapula muscle. Most of us spend hours every day with this muscle engaged, then wonder why our neck and shoulders are so tight!

Neck and Shoulder Pain Caused from Typing

One of the most common causes of levator scapula pain is working on a keyboard that is positioned too high. When typing, your shoulders should be down and relaxed, your elbows should be at a 90 degree angle, and the keyboard should be level with your forearms. Either use a keyboard tray, or elevate your chair. Just be sure your feet are flat on the ground or on a footstool.

Try this experiment. Stand behind a friend who is working with a proper desk setup, with the keyboard on a tray below their desk. Rest your hands on their shoulders. Now have them move their hands up to the desktop, as if their keyboard is there. You should feel their shoulders raise as they do this. Now imagine working for 8 or 9 hours a day like this, with the shoulders raised and the levator scapula engaged. Pain, stiffness and burning at the top of the shoulder blade is often caused by prolonged use of the levator scapula.

Neck and Shoulder Pain Caused from Using a Laptop

Working on a laptop is especially problematic. In order to have the screen at eye level, you must raise your shoulders to reach the keyboard. In order to work on the keyboard with your shoulders down, you must bend your head forward in order to see the screen, which as we mentioned earlier, also engages the levator scapula!

If your laptop is your primary computer, or if you are going to be working on it for more than an hour or two, it is strongly recommended that you invest in an external keyboard. Elevate the laptop on a stand so that the screen is arms length away and just below your line of vision. Either use a keyboard tray to hold the keyboard so your shoulders are down and relaxed, or elevate your chair. Just make sure your feet are flat on the floor or a footstool.

Neck and Shoulder Pain Caused from Driving

Long hours of driving with your hands near the top of the steering wheel, in the ’10 and 2′ position cause the levator scapula to be engaged. The optimum position when driving is to have the seat slightly reclined (about 15 degrees) and the chair seat tipped forward. Keep your elbows slightly bent and your hands at the ‘9 and 3’ position. The middle of the headrest should be level with the top of the ear.

Neck and Shoulder Pain Caused from Working with Your Arms Raised

Working with your arms raised above your head for prolonged periods of time can also irritate the levator scapula. To help reduce neck pain, stabilize your shoulder blade when you raise your arm.

  • Raise your left arm into the air. Pay attention to your shoulder. Did it also raise up?
  • Put the arm and the shoulder back down and raise your left arm again. This time, pull the left shoulder blade down as you lift your arm.

This will allow the arm movement to happen mostly at the shoulder joint and not so much between the shoulder and the neck.

Neck and Shoulder Pain from Holding the Telephone Between Your Chin and Shoulder

This bad habit forces the levator scapula to both elevate the shoulder and turn the neck. Use your speaker phone or invest in a headset.

Levator Scapula Stretch to Relieve Neck and Shoulder Pain

This is a good stretch for people who spend a lot of time with their shoulders elevated. Can be done seated or standing.
Hold the stretch for 15 to 30 seconds. You should feel a gentle tension on the side of the back of your neck. If you feel pain or tingling, reduce the stretch.

1. Reach your right hand behind your back and toward your left hip.
2. With your chin dropped toward your chest, tip the left ear toward the left shoulder and rotate your head to the left. Your nose should be pointing toward your left armpit.
3. To further the stretch, bring your left arm up and over your head. Grasp the right side of your head and gently pull it toward your left shoulder, without forcing. It should look like you are sniffing your armpit!
4. Breathe fully, deeply and slowly. As you feel the muscle relax you will notice your head moves more fully into the stretch position. Allow this to happen. Hold for at least 30 seconds. Repeat on the other side.


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Huddersfield Sports Massage

The Media Centre, Office LG33,
Lord Street, Huddersfield HD1 1RL

The Media Centre, Office LG33,
Lord Street, Huddersfield HD1 1RL