Have you ever woken from a night’s sleep only to find your neck is so stiff and painful that you are unable to turn your head?
A small muscle in your neck called the “Levator scapula” aka “the stiff neck muscle” may have been the culprit. Found at the back of the neck, the 'levator scapula', elevates (“levator”) the shoulder blade ("scapula"). It gets it’s nickname the “stiff neck muscle” because it often becomes stiff, rigid and immovable upon waking, especially if you have spent the night sleeping on your stomach with your head turned.
Other factors that can cause pain, stiffness and lack of mobility of the Levator scapula and neck are the development of small knots in the muscle, aka trigger points. Trigger points in Levator scapula can cause neck pain and restricted neck movement, which can force you to turn your entire body instead of your neck when doing simple tasks like shoulder checking, or turning to speak to others. Often individuals with trigger points in the Levator scapula will present with the affected shoulder blade raised slightly higher than that of the unaffected side.
Trigger points in the Levator scapula can refer pain to other surrounding areas. Common sites of referred pain are the base of the neck, the inner border of the shoulder blade and the front of the shoulder on the affected side.
Causes of trigger points in the Levator scapula:
Posture: The head forward neck posture that we assume while on the computer or checking our phones. This posture can place strain on the Levator scapula, causing it to contract to compensate for the forward neck posture.
Carrying a heavy purse or bag over one shoulder.
Sleeping on the stomach with the head turned.
Emotional stress leading to elevated shoulders.
Holding the phone between the ear and shoulder while talking.
The treatment of neck pain due to Levator scapula trigger points is often straightforward and may offer quick relief of both pain and stiffness. Treatment includes:
Postural and orthopedic assessment of the neck and shoulders
Treatment of any underlying causes, i.e muscle imbalances, compensation patterns, stress.
Self-care education that can include: postural exercises, stretches, and/or self -trigger point release techniques.
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Ryan Samuels - Registered Acupuncturist & Chinese Herbalist
Legge, David, Close To The Bone: The treatment of painful musculoskeletal disorders with acupuncture and other forms of Chinese medicine (Sydney college press, 3rd ed, 2011)
Dutton, Mark, Dutton’s Orthopaedic Examination, Evaluation and Intervention (McGraw-Hill Companies, 3rd ed, 2012)