This isn't the biggest muscle on the neck, but it sure does a lot of work!
Like it says on the tin, Levator Scapulae elevates your scapula, aka the shoulder blade. Every time you shrug your shoulders, the levator scapula is working.
Levator Scapulae also turns your neck on the same side. So if you want to look over your left shoulder, your left levator scapula is engaged.
Along with other muscles at the back of the neck, levator scapula stabilizes your neck. When you are looking down to read or write, the levator scapula prevents your head from flopping forward onto your chest.
Causes of Pain....Elevated Shoulders
Typing: One of the most common causes of levator scapula pain is working on a keyboard that is positioned too high. When typing, your shoulders should be down and relaxed, your elbows should be at a 90 degree angle, and the keyboard should be level with your forearms. Either use a keyboard tray, or elevate your chair. Just be sure your feet are flat on the ground or on a footstool.
Laptops: Working on a laptop is especially problematic. In order to have the screen at eye level, you must raise your shoulders to reach the keyboard. In order to work on the keyboard with your shoulders down, you must bend your head forward in order to see the screen, which as we mentioned earlier, also engages the levator scapula!
If your laptop is your primary computer, or if you are going to be working on it for more than an hour or two, it is strongly recommended that you invest in an external keyboard. Elevate the laptop on a stand so that the screen is arms length away and just below your line of vision. Either use a keyboard tray to hold the keyboard so your shoulders are down and relaxed, or elevate your chair. Just make sure your feet are flat on the floor or a footstool.
The optimum position when driving is to have the seat slightly reclined (about 15 degrees) and the chair seat tipped forward. Keep your elbows slightly bent and your hands at the '9 and 3' position. The middle of the headrest should be level with the top of the ear.
- Raise your left arm into the air. Pay attention to your shoulder. Did it also raise up?
- Put the arm and the shoulder back down and raise your left arm again. This time, pull the left shoulder blade down as you lift your arm. This will allow the arm movement to happen mostly at the shoulder joint and not so much between the shoulder and the neck.
Levator Scapula Stretch
This is a good stretch for people who spend a lot of time with their shoulders elevated. Can be done seated or standing.
Hold the stretch for 15 to 30 seconds. You should feel a gentle tension on the side of the back of your neck. If you feel pain or tingling, reduce the stretch.
- Reach your right hand behind your back and toward your left hip.
- With your chin dropped toward your chest, tip the left ear toward the left shoulder and rotate your head to the left. Your nose should be pointing toward your left armpit.
- To further the stretch, bring your left arm up and over your head. Grasp the right side of your head and gently pull it toward your left shoulder, without forcing. It should look like you are sniffing your armpit!
- Breathe fully, deeply and slowly. As you feel the muscle relax you will notice your head moves more fully into the stretch position. Allow this to happen. Hold for at least 30 seconds. Repeat on the other side.
Causes of Pain...Head Forward Posture
The muscles at the front of the neck vertebrae, the longus capiti and colli, prevent the head from falling backwards. The scalene muscles, located at the sides of the neck, prevent the head from wobbling from side to side.
The splenius muscles, and our old friend the levator scapula, work from the back of the neck to prevent the head from falling forward onto your chest.
Because we spend so many hours a day reading or working on computers with our heads bent forward, the poor levator scapula is constantly straining to keep our heads from falling onto our chests. The more forward the posture of our head is, the harder this muscle has to work. Remember when I said the average head weighs about 12 pounds? That's with properly aligned posture. The farther forward your head is, the more it weighs! If you have head forward posture, your levator scapula is stretched tight all day long, trying to stabilize a 42 pound head!
Symptoms and Causes
- Cause tension headaches
- Compress the discs in the spine
- Cause arthritis
- Cause pain and disfunction in the jaw joint
- Cause pinched nerves
Head forward posture is most commonly caused by:
- Positioning computer screens too low
- Carrying heavy backpacks
- Reading, writing, sewing or other detailed work that requires your head to be bent forward
- Sleeping with your head propped up on large pillows
- Whiplash injuries or other trauma resulting in weakened muscles
Correcting Head Forward Posture
Your ears should be aligned with your shoulders.
Your shoulders should be down and relaxed, not hunched or rounded and not up around your ears.
Your head should lift up, not forward. Imagine a helium balloon attached to a string, lifting your head up to the sky, weightless and effortless.
- Sit or stand with your head in a neutral position. Use your finger to push your chin back into your neck. If you've given yourself a double chin, you're doing it right!
- Push your chin back while looking straight ahead. It is important not to flex(bend) the neck forward.
- Hold this position for 10 seconds, relax and repeat.
- Stand beside a wall or within a doorframe. Bring your forearm up along the wall (or doorframe) so that it is at a 45-degree angle up from the horizon (top image at right).
- Lean or step forward until you feel a gentle pulling in the front of the shoulder and chest. Breathe fully and deeply, noticing that the tension rises as you breathe in and falls as you breathe out. Over several breaths the pectoral muscles tend to relax.
- As this happens, allow your body to move further forward as your arm remains anchored along the wall.
- Reposition your forearm contact, so that your upper arm is horizontal (middle image). Lean or walk forward to the ﬁrst point of tension. Stretch, breathe and readjust your position as required.
- Reposition a ﬁnal time so that the upper arm is angled down 45 degrees from the horizontal (lowest image above) and repeat the stretching process.
- Hold each stretch for at least 15 to 30 seconds.
- Repeat on the other side.
- If you feel pain, numbness or tingling, reduce the intensity of the stretch.
- Don't do this stretch if your shoulder is unstable or prone to dislocating.
Credit: Doug Alexander