One of the most common complaints that we see in our clinics is upper back tension. The trapezius (traps) is a large muscle that covers a good portion of the mid and upper back as well as the posterior aspect of the neck. It is a contributor to our active movement and our posture. The traps help with some of our neck and head movements, to stabilize the shoulders and allows us to shrug, as well as controlling our shoulder blade mobility.
Trapezius pain can often be the result of trigger points. These can develop from exercise as well as inactivity or working with poor posture, especially with your head looking downward. The trapezius is a “tripartite” muscle which means that it is made up of three portions; upper, middle, and lower. Each portion can refer pain into different areas. The upper trapezius will tends to refer pain and tenderness into the neck, behind the ear to the temple. The lower portion tends to refer to the lower neck, mastoid (jaw) area, upper shoulder blade, and between the shoulder blades. The middle portion tends to be a less common culprit for pain referral but when it is problematic, it refers pain more midline towards the spine and between the shoulder blades. So as you can imagine, the trapezius can contribute to various pain syndromes such as neck, upper and mid back pain, shoulder pain, headaches, and jaw tension.
How To Reduce Trapezius Tension:
- Ice and heat
When irritated, applying ice and heat to the muscle may be beneficial. Ice can aid in reducing inflammation in the area while heat can be calming to muscle tension by promoting blood flow and promoting healing. If acute, generally ice may be the better option for the first few days while heat is better for chronic conditions. You can also alternate ice and heat to take advantage of both benefits. When in doubt of which to choose, talk to your chiropractor, physiotherapist or registered massage therapist for advice.
- Sitting with good posture, begin by rolling your shoulders back and trying to bring your shoulder blades together. Slowly raise your shoulders up and down as a shoulder shrug. Repeat hourly when working at your computer. This is great for adding mobility into the muscle to try to prevent excess tension from developing.
- Begin seated or standing maintaining neutral posture and with your core engaged. Place one hand on your lower back (or sit on your hand) and the other on top of your head. Apply gentle pressure to your head as you bend your neck towards that same shoulder. You should feel a stretch along your neck and upper back. Hold for 30 seconds/side.
- Yoga tune-up ball
- Adding a yoga tune up ball into your at-home self-care can be great for the traps. You can start by using the ball against a wall while standing. This can help you target the muscle of choice while avoiding overdoing it with too much pressure. This can be especially helpful if using a yoga ball is new to you. Place the ball between your shoulder blade and spine. Gentle roll up towards your neck holding on to tender spots that you may find for a few seconds. You can also roll across your upper back (staying off of the spine).
- Laying on your back with your knees bent, place the balls in the upper traps. You can roll slowly or lift your hips towards the ceiling for more pressure. Go slow and be cautious with the amount of pressure you are using.
When a muscle has been tense for a long time, it can actually become weaker. Seems a bit counterintuitive but it does in fact happen. It is very common for the upper and lower traps to become out of balance, which can lead to pain and dysfunction.
- Upper trap: doing a slow and controlled shoulder shrug with or without weights is a great way to activate and strengthen the trapezius muscle.
- Lower trap: To activate your lower traps, pull your shoulders down while trying to squeeze your shoulder blade together. Hold for 15 seconds and repeat. Exercises that work well are performing “Y” and “T” movements as well as scapular protraction and retraction exercises.
- Posture Correction
This is the most important point when it comes to the prevention of issues but also in reducing recurrences. Poor posture is often what leads to developing these issues in the first place. For tips, please check out our previous blog post “How To Fix Bad Posture”.
- See your healthcare provider.
When you are noticing recurrent or persistent tension or pain in the upper back and neck or if you are developing headaches and jaw tension, it’s a good idea to ask for help. Our chiropractors, physiotherapists, and massage therapists are all able to assist with trapezius related issues and posture advice.