The trapezius muscle is composed of three parts and based on the originating fibers, termed the upper trapezius, middle trapezius and the lower trapezius, respectively.
The lower trapezius fibers are stretched when stretching the mid-back as in child’s pose with arms outstretched, or unilaterally with spinal twist postures as in the ardha matsyendrasana. The middle trapezius fibers are stretched with the interscapular stretch and also with the triceps stretch which is coming up in the next post.
This leaves us with the upper trapezius which is the topic for this post. The upper trapezius muscle originates from the spine of the C7 vertebra, the external occipital protuberance, the medial third of the superior nuchal line (back of the head) and the ligamentum nuchae. The fibers converge laterally and insert onto the posterior border of the lateral third of the clavicle.
Remember as a baby, lying on the stomach and attempting to lift the head up, yes? That was your upper trapezius which enabled you to do that. How about the umpteen shrugs in your lifetime? That is your upper trapezius, also.
This muscle plays a big role in both posture maintenance and movement of the neck and scapulae. Since the head is anterior heavy, the upper trapezius counterbalances the pull of gravity towards cervical flexion. When the bilateral muscles work in synchrony, they extend the neck. Unilaterally activated, it elevates the scapula as in a shoulder shrug or accomplishes same-sided side bends of the neck. Together with the same sided lower trapezius fibers, it rotates the scapula upwards for overhead activities.
Let us look at upper trapezius stretches. As usual, we will consider right sided stretch for consistency and ease of understanding.
As with the levator scapulae, manual techniques work wonders on the upper trapezius muscle. It is possible to release these muscles by yourself as they are easily accessible with your own hands. Static neurological release by holding onto a trigger point and gently increasing the pressure through finger pads for duration of 30 seconds and up to 2 minutes is very effective. Slow circular motion as in kneading also releases these muscles. This should be followed by manual stretching as in side bending and shoulder depression movements to retain the gains made.
Active Static Stretch
i) In early stages, it is best to do stretches in supine as the supported position allows the postural scapular and trunk muscles to relax as well as the upper trapezius to relax maximally as it is not holding the head up countering gravity. To stretch the right upper trapezius, gently depress the right shoulder and hold the position for a full breath cycle. Maintaining this position, slowly tilt the head and neck to the left side and hold for 5 -30 seconds. Repeat 2-3 times.
ii) Seated upper trapezius stretch: It is important to be seated upright with good posture, both feet supported on the floor, weight transfer through the ischial tuberosities with neutral spine and shoulder blades gently pulled back (no squeezing). Next, gently lower the right shoulder down as in depression and tilt head to the left. The cervical side bend to left may be facilitated by gentle pressure using the left hand with palm over the parietal and occipital bones and fingers spread with finger pads below the occipital protuberance. Hold the stretch for 5- 30seconds and release. Repeat 2-3 times.
Active Dynamic Stretch
i) Seated upright with good posture as mentioned above, initiate stretch by pulling shoulder blades back gently and depressing or lowering the both shoulders. Bend the head and neck to the left and hold for 3 seconds, return to the center and bend head and neck to the right for a 3 second hold, all the time maintaining the shoulders in depression. This is a bilateral stretch with alternating side bends. You may do anywhere from 5-10 repetitions.
Unilateral right upper trapezius stretch may also be performed by depressing only the right shoulder and bending head and neck to the left for 3 second hold, bringing head back to neutral and repeat 5-10 times.
Stretching with tools or equipment:
i) Foam Roller: Place the foam roller sideways on the mat or floor. Lie on the foam roller with both the shoulder blades resting on the foam roller with feet on the mat/floor as in hook lying position. Move the body down as the foam roller rolls upwards from the mid-back to the neck region. You may lie down with legs lowered in supine with the foam roller under the curve of the neck and slowly turn the head from side to side, releasing the upper trapezius at the scapular insertion and C7 origin. Roll the foam roller slightly higher and let the occiput rest on the roller. Just hold the position and let the weight of the head release the upper origin of the muscle. Next turn the head from side to side to release the fibers along the occipital protuberance and superior nuchal line.
ii) Tennis ball: This muscle release may be targeted by placing a tennis ball between the wall and the upper shoulder neck area. Slowly roll the ball along the neck to release fibers from the ligamentum nuchae along length of cervical spine.
P.S. Anatomy picture from Wikimedia Commons
File:Cunningham's Text-book of anatomy (1914) (20789827456).jpg
Ami Gandhi is a licensed physical therapist in the state of California. She is the owner of StableMovement Physical Therapy, a small boutique practice in San Jose that offers patient centered, one-on-one, hands-on physical therapy.