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Ever woken up with a stiff neck? Or went to turn your head to find out that it hurts to turn a certain way? Neck pain is definitely no fun! But what causes this pain to come on so suddenly?

What causes this neck pain?

One possible suspect is a muscle called the levator scapula. Like most muscles, there is one on each side of your body. The origin (where the muscle begins) is the vertebrae in your neck, specifically vertebrae C1-C4. The insertion (where the muscle ends) is the upper medial border of the scapula. 

Levator scapulae

What does this muscle do?

It has a few functions, or what we call “actions”. 

  1. One of its actions is exactly what the name says: it elevates (lifts) the scapula.
  2. When both muscles contract at the same time, the scapulae stay in place and the muscles work to extend the head and neck (i.e. so you can look at the sky).
  3. When one muscle contacts (unilateral), it results in rotation to that side (i.e. turning your head to look to the right or left). 
  4. Another unilateral action is lateral flexion (i.e. tilt of the head so your ear moves closer to the shoulder). 

Why does this neck pain seem to happen suddenly?

Most of us have probably had an encounter with an angry levator scapula. Whether we’ve had air conditioning blowing right on our neck or fell asleep on the couch with our head on the arm rest, the levator scapula is sure to let you know when it’s not happy, earning its nickname as the “stiff neck muscle”. When the levator scapula is unhappy, you may feel pain at a very specific pinpoint near the top of your scapula or on the side of your neck. You may even feel referral pain into your shoulder. 

Most of us have probably had an encounter with an angry levator scapula. Whether we’ve had air conditioning blowing right on our neck or fell asleep on the couch with our head on the arm rest, the levator scapula is sure to let you know when it’s not happy, earning its nickname as the “stiff neck muscle”. When the levator scapula is unhappy, you may feel pain at a very specific pinpoint near the top of your scapula or on the side of your neck. You may even feel referral pain into your shoulder. 

What can you do from keeping this muscle from becoming a pain in the neck?

Massage, of course!  (Click here to see the types of massage we offer.) But since I can’t follow you around all day massaging your muscles, here are a few helpful at-home/at-work tips:

  •   Keep good posture – Our bodies always want us to look up and see the horizon, so when you slouch, it activates the muscles that are needed to extend your neck, like the levator scapula. Keeping good posture minimizes the stress on your extensor muscles and keeps the anterior (the front of the body) muscles open and balanced.
  •   Light, gentle stretches – If you ever feel your neck getting tight, it may be a good idea to step away from the computer screen or that good book and give your body some movement. Some neck rotations and some arm rotations are pretty good ways to get your body flowing. To stretch the levator scapula, I like to drop my chin to my chest and place my fingertips at the top of my head for the lightest pressure as assistance to the stretch. You definitely don’t want to jerk your head down or apply too much pressure. I also like to turn my head and look down (like looking down at my arm pit), using my fingertips to assist the stretch again.
  •   Use a pillow that keeps your neck in alignment – We’ve all seen the commercials for the mattresses that are best to keep your body in alignment during sleep. The same applies to the head…can you imagine going through the day with your head rotated to the right for eight hours? Pretty uncomfortable, right? So if you sleep with your neck twisted to one side for 8 hours, you can imagine how stiff your neck may feel when you wake up. 

Next time you feel tense, take a moment to close your eyes and take a deep breath. Focus on relaxing your mind and lowering your shoulders back down to where they’re supposed to be – those little buggers like to creep up to our ears every chance they get! Breathe in, opening your chest and releasing those muscles. Breathe out, exhaling the gobbledygook and lowering the shoulders.

Aah, doesn’t that feel so much better?!