Help! I Have a Pain in My Neck

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by MISSY ALBRECHT | DPT, CSCS, FMS

Muscle Spotlight: Levator Scapula

Location

This muscle originates from the first 4 cervical vertebrae and inserts onto the top/medial angle of the scapula (shoulder blade).

Function:

  • elevates and rotates the scapula downward
  • rotates and sidebends neck to the opposite direction

Just relax: If you find that you can never keep your neck relaxed during lifts (press) or even body weight movements (push-ups, pull-ups) you may have an overactive levator scap and really need to get into working out the muscle.
The levator scapula creates movement in the neck and shoulder complex (humerus and scapula). It works with the pec minor and rhomboids to rotate the scapula downward, which occurs when you bring your arm down from being overhead. This muscle doesn’t appear to have a lot of significant function, but it coordinates with all of the other surrounding muscles to keep the shoulder moving properly. It also helps to stabilize the neck when the shoulder has to move, and vice versa.

How It Limits Mobility

The negative effect: If the levator scapula is all balled up, the scapula cannot rotate up when you lift your arms up.
Although the levator scapula is an important muscle, I think of it more as a limiting factor in shoulder and neck mobility. This muscle usually becomes tight from poor posture. Whether it’s sitting with your shoulders shrugged up because you’re stressed, tilting your head to hold your phone to your shoulder, or just sitting in a slumped position this muscle takes the brunt. So what happens when this muscle becomes tight? Just like most other muscles, it limits mobility. If the levator scapula is all balled up, the scapula cannot rotate up when you lift your arms up. This can be a cause of a lot of inflammation and impingement in your shoulder because it narrows the space between your scapula and humerus. But do you ever think of working on your neck if your shoulder mobility is limited? If you don’t, then you should start because this muscle can be the main muscle limiting your overhead mobility. It’s the hidden secret!!

If you find that you can never keep your neck relaxed during lifts (press) or even body weight movements (push-ups, pull-ups) you may have an overactive levator scap and really need to get into working out the muscle. The levator scap will take over when other muscles are weak/tight in order to help you push heavy weight overhead (along with the upper trap). This is usually what the coaches are telling you to avoid! So if you feel like you try and try and still can’t keep them relaxed try working on the things below.

What To Do

1. Mobility work with the lacrosse ball

Lie on your back with the ball anywhere on the levator scapula muscle (see images above). It’s harder to stabilize the ball close to your neck, so it’s better to have it closer to your scapula. Then play around with moving your arm up over your head or out to the side and this will help to loosen up this muscle. You can also turn your head away from the ball to help work the muscle from the other direction. If this is too much pressure you can always just lean up against the wall.

2. Ball on stick

DIY mobility tools: Check out K-Starr’s homemade lacrosse ball/pvc here.
You can either create your own with a lacrosse ball and stick, or use the little one at the gym (I think it’s all made of wood?).

  • put the stick against the wall with the ball side facing you
  • lie on your back (knees bent) with the ball into the meaty part of your neck, near your levator scapula
  • use your legs to push your body weight into the ball and use the pressure to help release the muscle.
  • you can also move your arm up and over your head to mobilize more aggressively. The wall will get in the way though, so you will have to put the stick on the rack in order to allow space for your arm to move

3. Stretch! Here are some ideas…


Reference
Neumann, Donald A. Kinesiology of the Musculoskeletal System: Foundations for Physical Rehabilitation. 2002.

This article was originally published on September 16, 2012 on CrossFit South Bay’s blog.

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