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, help to stabilize the shoulders and allow us to shrug, as well as helping to control 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 in poor posture, especially with your head looking downward. The trapezius is tripartite meaning that it is made up of three portions; upper, middle and lower. Each portion can refer pain to different areas. The upper trapezius will refer to pain and tenderness in 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 tends to refer 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:
1. Ice and heat:
When irritated, the application of ice and heat 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 tends to be better for chronic conditions. You can also alternate ice and heat to take advantage of both benefits. When in doubt about 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 pinch the 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 a 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.
3. 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 tender spots that you may find for a few seconds. You can also roll across your upper back (staying off the other 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. Another issue with the traps that is very common is that the upper and lower traps can 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 blades 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.
5. Posture Correction
This is the most important point when it comes to the prevention of developing issues but also is reducing recurrences. Poor posture is often what leads to the development of these issues in the first place. A moving posture is the best posture. Change it up and take frequent posture breaks. For tips, please check out our blog post Posture 101.
6. 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. Book online or call us at our Byward Clinic or our Glebe Clinic.