Do you frequently experience tightness in the upper trap region of your neck?
In this post we will review common reasons that this may be happening and some ways that may help fix this!
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.
The upper trap specifically starts at the base of our skull and travels down toward our shoulder where it ends on the clavicle.
The muscle belly (the part that frequently feels tight) is typically the central part of the muscle between the side of your neck and top of your shoulder. See picture just below for a visual of this location.
This muscle activates when you shrug your shoulders up toward your ears.
This means when your shoulders are up in this position, the upper trap muscle is shortened.
What can cause upper trap tightness?
Poor postural habits are probably one of the most common culprits of upper trap tightness.
There is no such thing as perfect posture but there are certain postural positions that more commonly cause issues.
When we are sitting and our shoulders start to shrug up toward our ears throughout the day, this is causing the upper traps to shorten as I described above.
If we keep our shoulders elevated for much of the day, the muscle is in this shortened position for a while and it will start to get tight.
This most commonly happens when we sit and work at a computer all day.
Increased stress levels
Stress really 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 to people I usually use the upper traps as an example of this because it is 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 maybe you hold your stress here.
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 our rotator cuff muscles are weak, this also causes the upper trapezius to overwork with activities such as when you are reaching over head.
Strength and flexibility are both important for the muscles of our body.
Injury in neck (cervical spine)
When you are experiencing upper trap tightness this could also be because something is actually going on in your neck (cervical spine).
When we have an injury, the muscles around the area sometimes tighten up because they are trying to “protect” the injured area.
I also want to note that if you are having pain in the upper trap region that it does not necessarily mean that it is actually your upper trap muscle. This area is a common place where pain will radiate to when it is coming from the cervical spine, particularly if there is 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 are going to talk about how to fix tightness the upper trap 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 and you will start to notice this happening sooner and be able to change it quicker.
2. Work on relaxation
Sometimes our muscles “forget” how to relax. If we are constantly holding a muscle in a tightened and shortened state it may not naturally lengthen and relax on it’s own. You need to use your mind to teach it 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 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 toward your right shoulder (it isn’t going to get there but this is the direction you are aiming for). Keep your left shoulder down.
If you are 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 is really unnecessary to do 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.
We have more control over our bodies than we frequently give ourselves credit for.
I hope you found this post helpful!
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