Levator scapula. When I first heard of this muscle in massage school, 14 years ago, I felt a little “ah ha” moment course through me and it quickly became my favorite muscle. First of all, I thought the name was so cool, in that cool way Latin has of stating the obvious: Levator – to elevate; the Scapula – a digging implement; heck yeah, the scapula makes a perfect pre-made little shovel. Actually when I heard “levator scapula” I think I identified most with the image of a rather tired and sticky freight elevator; rusty cables groaning as it worked to hoist its heavy load to the top floor (of my upper cervicals). A goal it constantly tried to reach, but in fact would never obtain. I thought: If only I could get it to stop slamming its load upward again and again, and maybe even lubricate those gritty cables!
Fourteen years later, I’m still working on it! Despite all that moaning and groaning, my levator (for short) is a tireless worker. It will try and try until worn to a pulp… and usually locked in spasm. I see this all too often with my bodywork clients too. A spasming levator is one of the primary, acute conditions that brings clients in for some ’emergency’ bodywork, or to many a doctor for other pain relief. Once called the “crick in the neck” muscle, and often diagnosed simply as “stiff neck,” an unhappy levator is all too common. But you can do a LOT to reduce your pain before it starts, or gets any worse!
How do you know if it’s your levator that’s screaming at you? First let’s find it, then find out what it does. Reach one arm across your upper chest and grab the top of your shoulder, a couple inches away from the base of your neck, so your thumb is nestled against your neck. You should have the very top of your shoulder, plus a couple inches posterior, under your hand. Feel that gnarly knot zinging under your fingers? That knot that everybody has, and most everybody wants massaged while they sit at their desk or watch TV? That knot my fellow stiff-neck friends, is actually where your levator scapula attaches to the top-medial angle of your upside-down-triangle-shaped scapula. Now it’s actually covered over by the trapezius here, so it’s a little hard to really get a hold of in the way we wish we could. And if you tried to follow it up your neck, you’d quickly loose track as it dives under the splenius capitis and sternocleidomastoid, before it separates into four strands and connects into the transverse processes (side of) your cervical vertebra 1-4 – another place where clients often plead, “please massage me here.”
“Why does it travel so?” you ask. Good question! Every muscle has a job of course, and it is important to realize at this point, the levator scapula may actually be MIS-named! What?! That cool name, all for naught! Yes, although it assists in many shoulder actions, according to Rolfer®, anatomist and fascial expert Tom Meyers, it seems the levator scapula’s primary objective is to help stabilize the cervical spine, together with about 12 other muscles. The levator’s job is to prevent the head from going forward, using a stabilized scapula as the base (yet another reason to engage your serratus anterior and stabilize our scapula, friends!). If the scapula isn’t stabilized, as the head falls forward, the scapula, and more of the shoulder girdle will start to get pulled up and forward with it, as it looses the tug-of-war with our ~12 pound head and the power of gravity! The more forward leaning we do, the more this poor muscle gets overstretched, while simultaneously in chronic contraction to support its heavy load. A similar strain is placed on the muscle if we ask those four little anchors on the topside to hoist that heavy bone toward our head, a.k.a. freight elevator (think: carrying a purse or backpack on one shoulder, squeezing a phone up to our ear, or just constant shoulder shrugging); or if we chronically turn our head to one side (hey you, face-down-sleeper who often wakes with that “crick in the neck,” or what about you, with the poorly setup work station that has your monitor off to one side). The more these battles rage on, the more discomfort we’re in.
Typically, we notice pain right at that knot you felt before, or up the neck. But since the levator travels from scapula to neck, and since neighboring muscles and fascia can continue its pain referral pattern beyond the muscle itself, there maybe areas beyond that muscle that are feeling the pain, like in the rhomboids, or onto the humerus.
Read my follow up blog on Friday for some great Yoga Tune Up® therapy for your levator scapula!