The other day, some participants in class were wondering how they could relieve the soreness and tension that they seem to always have in the area running from their neck to their shoulders, sometimes referred to as the area the “upper traps.” This area is a common area of discomfort; it is known for its tendency to be sore after long durations of working at our computers or during times of stress as we might unconsciously clench or shrug our shoulders. When this area gets over-stressed or tightened up, it can cause neck and upper back pain, headaches, jaw pain, and dysfunctional shoulder motion and impingement. To relieve these symptoms, certain yoga postures can be a great help, but first we have to consider the two main reasons this area is so often problematic: poor posture and over clenching in this area.
The area of the upper traps is just the top portion of the large, diamond shaped muscle known as the trapezius (image below). Each section (upper, middle, and lower) serve different actions/functions. The upper fibers of the muscle help in the shrugging (elevation) action of the shoulders and serves a role in keeping the head and neck in position during our daily activities. The upper traps are often overworked when we stay in a forward flexed/forward head-jutting posture for long periods, such as when we are working at the computer or looking down at our devices for extended periods of time. Consider the basic physics of the matter… your head is like a 10 pound weight at the end of your neck. When it leans forward, those stabilizing muscles in the posterior neck are working much, much harder than when your head rests vertically in relationship to gravity. Common sense tells us to try to sit straighter and limit forward jutting of the head to minimize the discomfort on our upper trap area.
However, posture correction is not as simple as don’t poke your head forward (*). To correct it, we need to consider what’s happening below the neck and check our alignment of the whole spine. I like to think of it as working from base up, and the base is our pelvis. If your pelvis is tilted out of neutral posture, the entire length of the spine accommodates for this alignment. In sitting, it is common to tilt the pelvis posteriorly (see image below) and this takes the lumbar spine (low back region) out of its natural curvature of being slightly arched inwards into a flattened posture. When the low back arch is flattened out, our neck posture has no chance of proper correction.
This is especially significant in yoga since we sit on the ground. Sitting low often causes a posterior tilting in the pelvis because many individuals have tight hip and leg muscles (or hip and knee joint issues) which limit their ability to move their hips in deep flexion and external rotation. With these motions being limited, sitting cross-legged becomes straining, and other areas compensate to manage the posture – namely the pelvis tilts in response to the pull of these forces. This is why yoga teachers encourage placing a lift under your seat to ease the tension through the tight hip/leg muscles pulling at the pelvis. It may not be perfect but adjusting your seat surface a little higher to encourage a more neutral pelvis and low back posturing can be a huge piece in correcting your neck pain.
The thoracic (middle back) segment of the spine can be just as much of a hindrance in supporting our neck posture. Individuals tend to collapse through their mid backs in sitting, often viewed as a rounded or hunched back posture. This posture is so common because it requires very little energy to sit this way – the postural, support muscles get to take a break and the spine slumps in response to gravity. Then the neck posture compensates in response, and the upper traps get overworked to hold the head in place this way. In yoga we regularly cue to lengthen the spine in our poses. Not only is this a really important way to create space between the vertebrae of the spine (which is good to prevent collapsing and compression of the spine in poses), but it is the key to adjusting posture through the mid back. I encourage my students to feel the lift upwards coming from the top of their breast bone (the manubrium), which creates a lengthening in the thoracic spine. This simple action creates a more vertical head/neck alignment. So yes, it takes a bit of effort to sit up straight – but it’s worth it!
Outside of spinal posture, the other main reason for pain and tension in the upper traps is if you have a habit of being an over-shrugger. The upper trapezius is one the main muscles which elevates the shoulders upwards (the other being the levator scapulae). Tensing or shrugging the shoulders is one of those conditioned responses to stress for many people. A certain thought, an uncomfortable situation can result in the shrug and people don’t even realize they are constantly, habitually clenching this area, and eventually this causes stiffness and pain.
To undo the effects of over-shrugging and train yourself out of this unconscious habit, It’s not enough to stretch these muscles. Instead consider doing the opposite motion to release the tension from the shrug. The opposite motion is lowering the shoulders down, known as depression, and this is done by activating the lower fibers of the trapezius muscle, which moves the shoulder blades down the back and lowers the shoulders. Also, activating the lower portion of the trapezius sends a reciprocal signal to the upper traps to release and stretch. (To get a better sense of the muscles involved in elevating and depressing the shoulders, click here for a short video animation).
Returning to posture, in order for this technique of shoulder depression to be effective, it’s really important that our spinal posture is in check. For example if you are sitting slouched and move your shoulders downwards, the shoulders might pull forward by the chest muscles and the lower traps won’t get activated, which is required for the upper traps to release.
The way I describe the correct technique in class is to first sit or stand tall, lift through the top of the breast bone, draw shoulders slightly back, and then lower the shoulders downwards –feeling shoulder blades move slightly together and down the back towards the hips. This will create an open spacious feeling from tops of shoulders to ears. (Note, you don’t have to do this motion with all your might, just a little bit of activation in this direction is sufficient). Then this technique can be applied to more complex motions and postures, such as your yoga poses. Cobra and Warrior II are a couple of my favourites to practice this. With practice your mid back muscles will strengthen, and the new, lowered shoulder posture will become more automatic.
Anytime we are trying to create change in our bodies, it requires awareness of our habits and plenty of practice before the new way sets in. To minimize upper trap pain, take advantage of your yoga classes to learn how to adjust your posture for more lift and neutrality in the spine, and then apply the practice of activating the lower trapezius muscle to release the shoulders down during the poses. In time you will feel your shoulder rest easier and the upper trap pains disappear.
*It is important to remember that your computer and chair set up can be the source of your postural problems. For instance if your monitor is too low, your body will compensate in posture to get an adequate eye line and vision to the screen and in this case no amount of knowledge of the spine will help. It’s equally as important to adjust your workstation.