Do you carry stress in your shoulders? When you squeeze the fleshy area between your neck and your shoulder, do you find achy, “crunchy” knots? Do you get tension headaches, have tenderness at the base of your skull, neck, between your shoulder blades, and down to the middle of your back? Do you find yourself constantly searching for a corner to press up against or massaging your neck? If you answered ‘yes,’ you may be suffering from an extremely tight trapezius muscle. How often are people suffering with tension in their necks and shoulders trying to get at least temporary relief by going for massages, chiropractic adjustments, acupuncture, even trigger point injections, and more? The problem is that we never get REAL long term relief. When I was younger, I was so hypersensitive that my whole body and face would tighten to bear the pain from even light massages. I would be grateful when that part of the massage was over. This type of tension in the trapezius is so common that we assume that everyone has it and it is normal.
Although this is common, it is not normal. This is not how a healthy neck should feel. Helping people permanently experience neck relief is a big component of my medical practice. It is gratifying to see people experience something they have not experienced before… relief. Many of us have been so tight in our neck muscles for so long, we cannot even imagine what it would feel like to have relaxed trapezius muscles. Can you imagine what it would be like to have your neck and trapezius muscles so relaxed massage therapists could squeeze your trapezius muscles as hard as they wanted and have it feel good without grimacing and wincing? To actually be able to enjoy that portion of your massage? To have freedom from tension headaches, be able to turn your head freely without pain? What would it be like to be without that crunchy feeling between your shoulder blades? What if you were able to have more peace in life, as stress no longer resides in your shoulders? Can you imagine a lightness to your whole body?
So many people spend their whole lives dealing with this pain, trying so many different things looking for relief. Have you tried stretching, yoga, acupuncture, massage, injections searching for lasting relief and not finding it? People are going to practitioners who do the same treatments over and over expecting different results. Is this not the definition of insanity? Or perhaps your doctor has told you that ‘you just have to live with the pain.’ This is NOT how it has to be.
Let me explain what is missing with other conventional treatments when attempting to release tension in the trapezius. When we massage our necks, it does not have a long-lasting effect because the muscles are tight as a response to the input from the nerves. The nerves can become up-regulated by stress or traumas. By affecting specific structures, stress indirectly leads to tightening of the trapezius and other neck muscles. A very important component to addressing the trapezius muscle that is often missed is addressing the nervous system. Using new techniques in manual therapy, it is possible to use reflexes in a therapeutic way to calm down or ‘reset’ the ‘stress’ portion of the nervous system, the sympathetic nervous system.
Simultaneously, we can enhance the portion of the nervous system involved with relaxation, digestion and healing: the parasympathetic nervous system. Because of the modern lifestyle, most people have the sympathetic nervous system running out of control and overriding the parasympathetic nervous system. A good example of an effect of an overactive sympathetic nervous system is grinding teeth during sleep. When our bodies should be relaxing, our nervous system is still acting like it is ‘stressed out’ preventing appropriate relaxation, digestion, and healing.
Another component that is often not addressed when there is a problem with the trapezius is evaluating and treating the acromioclavicular joint (AC joint). This is an attachment point for the trapezius. Whenever a joint becomes dysfunctional, even if it is slight, the muscles associated with the joint will contract to protect the joint in attempt to prevent any further dysfunction. Many of us are unknowingly tender to palpation at the AC joint indicating a problem. I have often treated knots at trapezius and, at times, the latissumus dorsi (the ‘lats’) that were unresponsive to other forms of treatment that instantly and permanently resolved simply by restoring normal function at the AC joint.
Another component often overlooked or forgotten is to evaluate and treat the lower portion of the trapezius that attaches all the way towards the midline, lower portion of the back. Being a large muscle, oftentimes only the upper portion of the trapezius is truly considered. The reason that treating the lower trapezius is important is that it can refer pain to the upper trapezius. So someone could have upper neck pain, tension, and limited mobility without mid to low back pain. The underlying problem causing the pain is referred pain from the lower trapezius. This means that only addressing the upper trapezius, where the pain is, does not have any effect because the pain originates from the lower trapezius.
In order to be truly successful in getting permanent resolution, there are many other structures that need to be considered when a trapezius is dysfunctional. These include the occipital bone in the head, ligamentum nuchae, dural membranes, and more. With neck pain and tightness, there is often much more to consider than just the trapezius. A skilled practitioner can differentiate whether or not trapezius is truly the biggest problem with the neck, or if it is simply a part of a ‘bigger picture.’ After trapezius and neck structures have successfully resolved, people will use words such as ‘light,’ ‘floating,’ and ‘relaxed’ to describe the endorphin release that takes place. This is the start towards breaking free from neck tension that can be life-changing.
So if you have the symptoms above, you have two choices. You can take your doctor’s advice and ‘live with the pain.’ You can spend the rest of your life resigned to the idea that permanent pain relief does not exist, popping pills, and doing things that do not give real lasting relief. The other option is to find a truly skilled practitioner who can help you now and start heading towards a pain- and tension-free life. It is time for you to feel amazing and take your life and your health back from the shackles of pain. What are you waiting for?