Article written by Chris Branam
Following my previous article on the trapezius, this article will examine another integral muscle in elevating the shoulders—the levator scapulae. Whereas the trapezius connects to the clavicle and the acromion process (both points near the edges of the shoulder), the levator scapulae connects to the inner edge of the scapula. As the name suggests, it lifts (levator) the scapula (scapulae) by pulling the top, inside edge of the scapula toward the neck. It also has a hand in turning and tilting the head.
Tian Tiao’s levator scapulae are well developed, I guarantee you, but you might not see them in the picture below. The levator scapulae’s lower attachments are buried under the upper trapezius. The upper part of the muscle attaches to the top four vertebrae of the neck. As you can see from the image below pulled from the seminal Gray’s Anatomy, one has to remove the trapezius to see the levator scapulae (the highlighted muscle).
Because of its similar workload of lifting the shoulders, the levator scapulae can be strained in much the same way as the trapezius. Heavy clean or snatch pulls where one is shrugging the shoulders could certainly cause some latent trigger points to become active in this muscle. The other danger to these muscles occurs when doing exactly what I’m doing right now: sitting and typing. It’s not uncommon for people to hang their head forward while typing or to be copying a document set beside their keyboard. In these positions, your levator scapulae is playing tug of war against your head. According to Clair Davies, other dangers include carrying a heavy backpack or purse or pinching your phone between your head and shoulder (a.k.a. the way my mom held the phone so her hands were free to hit me with a fly swatter while talking to my aunt).
Janet Travell also notes in Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction that shortness of the upper arms in relation to the torso is a factor in levator scapulae strain. In case you haven’t noticed, a lot of great weightlifters don’t have much of a wingspan. Examples A, B, and C:
How will you know if you have trigger points located in this muscle? Trigger points in the levator scapulae cause pain in the angle of the neck over the location of the muscle and make turning the head difficult. As Davies says, this trigger point is “what keeps you from turning your head to look behind you when you’re backing up in your car.”
Now that we understand the location of the levator scapulae and how this muscle might develop trigger points, let’s look at how to take care of these trigger points.
The above diagram shows the location of the middle and lower trigger points of the levator scapulae, but leaves out the uppermost trigger point located high on the neck just behind the sternocleidomastoid.
The lowest trigger point is the easiest to get to in relation to its proximity to the skin’s surface. However, Davies points out that this one isn’t the trigger point that causes the most trouble; it will still feel good to rub it, but it might not eliminate all your pain. To work the lowest trigger point, use a ball against the wall or the Thera Cane as demonstrated below, moving the knob a little lower and closer to the medial border of the scapula.
The middle trigger point (the upper “X” in the picture above) is the big culprit in causing neck pain, Davies says. It also happens to be the one that is buried underneath the thick wall of the upper trapezius. You will have to apply strong pressure to get to this one. Both of these trigger points can be worked using a lacrosse ball against a wall or using the Thera Cane as demonstrated below, moving the knob lower and closer to the medial border of the scapula for the lowest trigger point and a few inches higher, straight up from the lowest trigger point for the middle one.
With both of these, you’ll know you’re in the right place when you hit a spot that is extremely tender.
The final trigger point, the one not pictured above, can be massaged with the hand on the same side using a supported thumb.
Remember the guidelines for massage outlined in my first article.
That’s it! Next time your workout is a pain in the neck, start working on your levator scapulae for some relief!
Davies, Clair, and Amber Davies. The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook: Your Self-Treatment Guide for Pain Relief. 2nd ed. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications, 2004. Print.
Travell, Janet G., and David G. Simons. Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction: The Trigger Point Manual. 2nd ed. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins, 1999. Print.