Upper Traps – Part 4 of the grumbly muscle series…quite literally a pain in the neck!


The trapezius muscle is divided up into upper middle and lower fibres, but today we’ll concentrate on the upper fibres because that’s where we experience the most pain…

The trapezius as a whole originates right up in the skull at the occipital protuberance, ligamentum nuchae and then attach to the spinous process (the sticky out bit of bone you can feel through the skin) of C7 (cervical spine – bottom of the neck) to T12 (thoracic spine, right at the bottom) ….see the picture.

The traps then insert into the clavicle, acromion, and spine of scapula (basically, the outside of the shoulders).

What do the upper traps do exactly?

Well, out of the three portions they do the bulk of the work.

  • Both sides working together will extend the neck (hold the head up).
  • One side working alone flexes the neck on the same side (ear to shoulder).
  • It will rotate the neck and head to the opposite side.
  • It elevates ↑ the scapula (shoulder blade).
  • And finally, it upwardly rotates the scapula.

Why do they hurt?

Acute and persistent neck pain can occur because of tight upper traps which can include an occipital headache (at the base of the skull) and very tender upper trapa – Trapezius myalgia…interestingly, women suffer more, possibly due to prolonged postures at work (which can decrease blood flow to the muscle), coupled with high mental loads. Poor posture (a forward head carriage) overloads the traps which also weakens them.

Weak rotator cuffs – The upper traps, as many other muscles do, can overcompensate for these weakened muscles.

Tension – We all carry tension and stress, most notably in our upper traps. When I treat people, I often feel trigger points (tight and tender areas of muscle which can refer pain elsewhere). Stress can also lead to areas of heightened sensitization in a muscle.  

What can we do about it?

Massage and stretching will ease muscular pain, but neither will cure it. Strengthening and altering your posture regularly are the best way to truly reduce pain. Movement is medicine! – Exercise reduces pain by creating local changes within the muscle.

How? – A shrug, particularly an overhead shrug with straight elbows (this stops levator scapula from working overtime) or a monkey shrug (dumbbell in hand, hands on hips so shoulders abducted to 30 degrees). Lateral raises (which also work the deltoids and rotator cuffs) in an abducted position.

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