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Scalenes On The Scale: Taking The Measure Of Three Small Muscles

By: | Friday, April 11th, 2014 | Comments 14

Freeze. Are you jutting your head forward to read this text? If so, are you also slouching, a position that collapses the front of your rib cage and forces you into a belly breathing pattern? If so, your scalenes aren’t terribly happy with you.

Your scalenes may well be working overtime.

The scalenes are a group of three muscles, three on the right and three on the left. Their primary job is to move your head and neck but they also help with inhalation. Scalenus anterior originates on the transverse processes of C3-C6 and inserts on the first rib. Scalenus medius originates on the transverse processes of C2-C7 and inserts on the first rib behind its anterior brother. Scalenus posterior originates on the transverse processes of C5-C7 and inserts on the second rib.

As mentioned, the scalenes’ primary function is to move the head and neck. On unilateral contraction they laterally flex the cervical spine ipsilaterally and contralaterally rotate the cervical spine. In other words, the right scalenes tip your right ear toward your right shoulder and turn your head to the left. The scalenes get a workout in any yoga pose where the trunk inclines or curves to the side. So when you practice trikonasana, triangle pose, on the right side, your left scalenes prevent your head from drooping toward the floor and your right scalenes help turn your head to look at the ceiling. On bilateral contraction, the scalenes flex the cervical spine, bowing your chin into your chest. They function in this capacity, for example, when you initiate a traditional abdominal curl-up by nodding your chin toward your neck. Here’s what many anatomy books don’t mention: on bilateral contraction the anterior and medial scalenes also extend the cervical spine—not by tilting your head back, but by translating forward the vertebrae on which they originate, à la jutting your head forward to see a computer screen. Given the prevalence of computing in contemporary society, the scalenes work overtime in this role.

If the neck remains fixed, the scalenes help to elevate the first two ribs, making them accessory muscles of inhalation. Let’s say you’re slumped forward reading this article. (And I’ll confess that this is my posture as I write—exacerbated by the fact that my computer is sitting on a knee-height café table.) When you stoop, movement of your rib cage is constrained by the closure across the front of the chest. Because the big strong diaphragm now can’t effectively expand the rib cage on inhalation, the accessories—including the scalenes—start jumping up and down shouting, “I’ll do it! I’ll do it!” like a bunch of excited eight-year-olds volunteering to bang the erasers. (Do classrooms still use chalkboards?) But since the scalenes’ insertion points on the rib cage are largely immobilized by your slouch, the scalenes here are about as effective in assisting respiration as the aforementioned eight-year-olds would be in trying to tug the chalkboard off the wall. In this scenario, the scalenes (and other accessories of inhalation) become hypertonic.

A lot of neck pain is breath- and posture-related. If a student complains of neck pain, it’s worth asking how they spend their day outside of the asana room. Activities like computing or cradling a phone between shoulder and ear ask a lot of the scalenes (and other neck muscles). Sometimes we can best serve students by attuning their awareness to how they hold themselves while going about their day-to-day activities. And, of course, honing sustained attentiveness is one of the primary skills to be derived from a yoga practice.

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About This Author

Jennie Cohen, E-RYT 500, teaches classes, privates, and teacher trainings in New York City and internationally. Precise instruction and focused sequencing create an experience that is both informative and transformative. Jennie's interest in anatomy and her studies of the texts that form yoga’s philosophical foundation infuse her classes.

14 Responses to “Scalenes On The Scale: Taking The Measure Of Three Small Muscles”

  1. Angie says:

    It’s funny how awkward it feels to be properly aligned when you are stuck in movement patterns. The muscles in charge of neck extension go into overtime as I work to avoid craning of the neck. When breathing consciously in both a forward head posture and proper alignment I definitely feel the difference. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.

  2. Loved this. Well written and with humor.
    I’ll admit the anterior head carriage but have
    1 disclaimer. I was pumping breast milk at
    the same time and trying to keep it in place with
    a pillow so I could read too! ;)

  3. Marsha says:

    Ya caught me! I was totally jutting my head forward AND slouching as I began to read this article. =\ Then I adjusted myself to sit up tall, but caught myself again throughout the article. It is true – my scalenes have been working overtime. I sit at a desk 10 hours a day, and when I’m not doing my asanas, I am probably researching on my own laptop computer sitting on the couch. I do suffer from chronic neck pain. Now that you’ve brought awareness to my daily postures, I am going to figure out a way to remind myself to make adjustments. Thank you for painting a picture on which scalene muscles are working in relation to specific yoga poses. It really helped me envision the muscles at work. Interesting to discover that my neck pain has a relationship between my breath and my posture. I really enjoyed this article =)

  4. Ilene says:

    Great blog post Jennie. As a neck pain sufferer, due to age-related cervical disc degeneration, I appreciate this overview. I have spent hours in PT, with exercises to strengthen my neck and shoulders, but I should start looking at the ways I am overworking my scalenes through postural habits.

  5. When you look at the cables of a bridge on each side of the towers, they are a visual image of the symmetry that the body also needs in order to do a minimum of eneous muscle work to stabilize the head and neck. The principles of the Alexander technique and the “directional inner dialogue” of “head back and up” are the mental antidote to the computer posture which forces the head forward and down. I find that it requires a conscious focus to create a new habit.

    ~Sara lyn Phillips

  6. Elise Gibney says:

    Lovely post! I especially appreciate the information regarding the involvement of the scalenes and respiration. I think of these muscles when I think of neck tension but not breath. I’m going to give my neck some more love now by trying to remember not only not to crane forward to look at screens but also by taking nice deep breaths with good posture!

  7. Christine Colonna says:

    Great article! I recently started a new job driving most of the day from one client’s home to the next and my next has been progressively bothering me. I know my scalenes are tight from sitting with my head in a forward position while slouched in the car. Will have to get a lumbar support to help correct the slouched position and scalene tightness. Diaphragmatic breathing will help relieve the
    activity of the scalenes while stresses and driving in traffic!

  8. Aaron Porter says:

    Yes! Great Article. I agree with Amanda Joyce. I love to use the YTU Balls to skin roll the scalenes. I am glad the article addresses the placement of the neck with breathing. Forward Head Posture is telling me you not only have a neck issue you having a breathing issue.

  9. Amanda Joyce says:

    Thank you for this intelligent (and entertaining!) reminder about the importance of our friends, the Scalenes! I really enjoy using the YTU therapy balls for skin rolling on the anterior neck and am often thinking about the health of the Scalenes when addressing my clients’ forward head posture…HOWEVER, it’s been a while since I sat and thought about their interaction with respiration. Thank you for the reminder! My clients will definitely benefit! Cheers!

  10. Jen Licursi says:

    Aside from consciously working to improve neck alignment, are there exercises you can recommend for people with degenerative kyphosis and limited neck mobility, especially for someone who’s apprehensive about using Yoga Tune Up balls to alleviate postural issues? Would pressing the fingertips against the forehead and the forehead against the fingers help to release the over-taxed scalenes, or would it be better to apply manual pressure at the insertion point?

  11. Kevyn says:

    Great article. I’m slowly learning keep an eye on my head jut throughout the day. And it’s great to better understand how these muscles interact with the breath during “computer” posture.

  12. Rachelle Gura says:

    I can’t believe the scaliness make it all the way down to the ribs, I thought they attached…well I didn’t know enough to even guess. This article comes at a time where I’m experiencing new shoulder pain. Now realizing I’m sleeping with my should hiked up to my ear recently and that is making my scaliness jump up and down. Love the 8 yr olds and eraser analogy! Thank you for writing about these often ignored muscles that are being stressed in a bad way, in epidemic proportions. I’ll stick a ball in them and get my head in a corner to roll them out.

  13. You caught me! I was in the bad position at the start of reading your post and I should know better. I’m sitting much better now thank you! shoul! Now, to break the pattern and not subconsciously fall back into it or catch myself when I do. Hmmmm, maybe a string on my finger? or something!! A note on my computer or refrigerator isn’t going to do it….it gets lost in all the other notes.

  14. Kristin says:

    This is fantastic! Even more reason to make sure your head is on straight. Thank you for a wonderful post.

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Jill Miller, Creator of Yoga Tune Up®

After studying yoga, movement, and the human body for over twenty years, I created Yoga Tune Up® as a simple way to restore my body and mind, keeping me balanced and free of pain. Using a specific and unique set of poses, movements and self massage tools, you too can LIVE BETTER IN YOUR BODY WITH YOGA TUNE UP®.

 

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