How To Release Upper Trap Tightness
Do you frequently experience tightness in the upper trap region of your neck? In this post, we’ll review common reasons for upper trap tightness along with some ways that may help fix this!
Disclaimer: Pain in the upper trap region is NOT always from tight muscles. If you have pain, consult with your doctor or physical therapist to determine the cause.
What are the upper traps?
The full name for the upper traps is upper trapezius. To make sure we are on the same page, let’s review where the upper trapezius is located.
The trapezius is a pretty large muscle located in the neck and upper back region. Since it is such a large muscle, it’s often broken up into three different parts. Today, we’re focusing on the upper part of this muscle.
The upper trap starts at the base of the skull and travels down toward the shoulder where it ends on the outer part of your clavicle.
The upper trap activates when you shrug your shoulders up toward your ears.
This means that when your shoulders are up in this position, the upper trap muscle is shortened.
The muscle belly is the part of the upper trap that frequently feels tight. This is the central part of the muscle between the side of your neck and the top of your shoulder. (See picture just above for a visual of this location.)
What can cause upper trap tightness?
1. Poor Posture
Poor postural habits are probably one of the most common culprits of upper trap tightness.
There’s no such thing as perfect posture, but there are certain postural positions that more commonly cause issues.
When we’re sitting and our shoulders start to shrug up towards our ears throughout the day, this is causing the upper traps to shorten as described above.
If we keep our shoulders elevated for much of the day, the upper trap muscle is in this shortened position for a while and it can start to get tight.
This most commonly happens when we sit and work at a computer all day.
2. Increased Stress Levels
High stress levels can be detrimental to the body in so many ways.
One thing that stress can do is it can cause us to hold muscles in a tightened position. Certain muscles are more prone to be held in a tightened position with stress than others.
Keep in mind, everyone holds their stress differently so not everyone who is stressed is going to have upper trap tension, but this is a common area that people hold stress.
The pelvic floor is another common area that some people hold stress. When I describe this stress-muscle tension relationship to people with pelvic floor tightness, I usually use the upper traps as an example because it’s so common for people to hold tension here!
If you notice after you have a stressful day that you feel tightness in the upper trapezius, then it’s possible that you hold your stress here.
3. Weak Opposing Muscles
The upper traps are only one third of the trapezius muscle. We also have mid traps and lower traps. While the upper traps tend to be tight in many people, the mid traps and especially the lower traps tend to be weak.
This creates a muscle imbalance. Basically what I mean by this is that if one muscle is weak, another will have to overwork to compensate for the weak muscle, and this overworking muscle can then become tight.
Another group of muscles that tend to be weak that can cause upper trap tightness are the rotator cuff muscles. When the rotator cuff muscles are weak, this can cause the upper trapezius to overwork with activities such as when you reach overhead.
Strength and flexibility are both important for the muscles of our body.
4. Injury In Neck (Cervical Spine)
You may also experience upper trap tightness because something is actually going on in your cervical spine. The cervical spine is the part of your spine that is in the neck region.
When we have an injury, the muscles around the area sometimes tighten up because they are trying to “protect” the injured area. So if you have an issue within the cervical spine, it is possible that your upper trap muscles may tighten up in response.
I also want to note that if you’re having pain in the upper trap region, it does not necessarily mean that it’s your upper trap muscle causing the pain. This area is a common place where pain will radiate to when it is coming from the cervical spine, particularly if there’s a disc issue in the cervical spine. That is why you should always see a doctor if you are having pain, the body is a complex thing!
Ok, we’re going to talk about how to fix upper trap tightness next. Just to be clear, this post is not about fixing a cervical disc issue.
How Can You Fix Upper Trap Tightness?
1. Work On Improving Your Posture
Posture is not an easy thing to change because many of the positions we find ourselves in happen unconsciously. With that said, just because it isn’t easy does not mean that it can’t be done.
If you know you are someone who tends to sit in a slumped position with your shoulders shrugged while working at a computer (many of us do this) then try to check in with yourself throughout the day.
When you notice you are in this position, fix it! If you feel like your shoulders are basically touching your ears, drop them down! The more you do this the more your body awareness will improve. As your body awareness improves, you will start to notice this happening sooner and will be able to change it quicker.
2. Work On Relaxation
Sometimes our muscles ‘forget’ how to relax. If we’re constantly holding a muscle in a tightened and shortened state, it may not naturally lengthen and relax on its own. You may need to use your mind to teach your body how to do this again.
Meditation is a great tool for this. You can use meditation to bring your awareness to a certain area of the body and then use your mind and breath to help your muscles relax.
You can also do a lying down relaxation like savasana. What you want to do is use your breath to help the muscles to start to relax. Click here for a video that teaches you how to do this.
3. Upper Trap Stretch
Stretching a muscle helps it to lengthen.
To stretch your left upper trap, keep your gaze looking forward and bring your right ear towards your right shoulder (it isn’t going to get there, but this is the direction you’re aiming for). Keep your left shoulder down.
If you’re doing this stretch sitting in a chair, you can even hold on underneath the chair with your left hand to ensure the shoulder stays down. (See picture below.)
To stretch the right upper trap, do the opposite 🙂
I know some people use their hand to pull the head while they stretch but I personally don’t like this variation. I think it puts too much strain on the cervical spine and it really is unnecessary to do this to get a good stretch.
For the stretch, I recommend holding it 20 seconds and repeating it 3 times.
4. Strengthen Weak Opposing Muscles
Strengthening muscles that may be underworking can help allow your upper traps to stop overworking.
Like I discussed before, the rotator cuff muscles and lower traps are pretty common muscles that may be weak.
To learn some rotator cuff strengthening click here.
To learn some lower trap strengthening click here.
We have more control over our bodies than we frequently give ourselves credit for.
I hope you found this post helpful, keep learning about your body!