It was 9pm at night & as she sat down on the lounge for the first time all day alone, the pain was all consuming.
It had been there when she awoke in an awkward position lying on her stomach looking over her right shoulder presenting as a stiff neck & dull ache.
After dropping her eldest to school, she had spent the morning bonding with her youngest child making lego on the floor with her neck titled looking down. By lunch time the ache had progressed to a deep burning sensation between her shoulder blades & her head was starting to ache. She was also finding it challenging to breath as her breathe seemed to be catching high into her ribs sitting shallow…
Her afternoon had been stressful as usual, as she met with her team for an after lunch meeting slouched in her chair already exhausted & then sat for hours negotiating over the phone at her desk looking down. She plugged figures into the calculator while holding the phone to one side squished between her neck & shoulder. Her stress levels steadily rose while her jaw clenched tighter & the pain in her jaw & at the base of her head increased.
By the time she had cooked dinner that evening, read the children their bedtime stories slumped in the reading chair looking down, with neck poking forward, her shoulders, head & jaw were pounding – along with other muscles, her Upper Trapezius muscles were tight, sore & under strain once again.
Does this scenario, pain & discomfort ring any bells? You are not alone, for most of us when tired & under stress, our upper trapezius tries to save the world by clenching tight & do their job very well of shrugging our shoulders up around our ears.
The Trapezius muscle (often referred to as traps) is a broad triangular shaped muscle that attaches to the base of the neck, up over the shoulders & extends down your upper back towards your middle back.
The traps are one of the most massaged muscles throughout our body.. ..& it feels oh so good when it is massaged!
Its functions are to move the scapular & support the arm.
The upper trap muscles (or superior fibres of the traps) are responsible for shrugging our shoulders up around our ears & moving the head & neck towards the opposite shoulder.
The middle trap (or middle fibres of the trapezius) draw the shoulder blades together.
The lower trap (inferior fibres) take up the most room of the 3 parts anatomically & are responsible for drawing the shoulder blades downwards.
The regular activities of our daily lives of hunching forward, constantly looking down while working, reading, cooking meals, washing, changing nappies, breastfeeding , talking on the phone can all contribute to Trapezius pain.
Even bra straps that are too tight & the weight of our breasts can cause trapezius discomfort.
During yoga or Pilates looking upwards & poking your chin & neck forward during asana & exercises will exasperate trapezius discomfit.
My favorite cues for maintaining a neutral neck position throughout classes are to hold an imaginary lemon between your chin & chest, broaden across your collarbones & lift through the crown of your head.
Ujjayi breathe during Yoga is a great way to relax the neck, shoulders & soften the throat throughout practice while diaphragmatic breathing is a fantastic way to relax the scalenus & levator scapulae & trapezius muscles.
Contracting the diaphragm, a muscle located horizontally between the thoracic & abdominal cavities, does diaphragmatic breathing.
To practice diaphragmatic breathing, make yourself comfortable, close your eyes & place your palms facing down on your bottom ribs. Take an easy inhalation & feel the ribs expand forwards & to the sides pressing into your palms & as you exhale feel the ribs draw in & back.
Imagine breathing equally into the sides & back of the body & you may like to visualize a cylinder shaped water cooler expanding under your hands as you inhale & contracting as you exhale.
As you practice diaphragmatic breathing, focus on relaxing the sternum, the muscles at the tops of the shoulders & the muscles at the front of the neck.
Taking a few moments a couple of times each day to sit & practice diaphragmatic breathing will help release tensions form the trapezius & decrease discomfit.
Diaphragmatic breathing is also a great mindfulness exercises to relive stress from your day.
Regular Yoga practice to extend the spine, ease the neck & open the shoulders together with Pilates prone lying exercises to activate & strengthen the lower trapezius will also decrease discomfort & improve posture.
Try these simple exercises together with diaphragmatic breathing for a just a few moments each day to ease tension from your trapezius & increase lower trapezius strength.
- From 4 point keeling, inhale to walk arms out towards top of mat pressing through all 10 fingers as you bring your chin and chest down towards the mat
- Exhale to lift high through the sit bones
Note: Try hovering your chin just off the mat with eye gaze towards fingers but if this it too intense, place forehead down on to the mat
- Hold for 3-5 breaths
Threading the needle:
- From four point kneeling, inhale to open right arm up towards the ceiling as eye gaze follows
- Exhale to bring right ear and shoulder down towards the mat as you reach your fingertips away
- Inhale to reach left arm to the ceiling
- Exhale to bind left arm behind the back as eye gaze looks to the top shoulder
Note: Aim to maintain all 10 toes connected to the mat
- Hold for 5 breaths and repeat on other side.
- Start lying flat on belly with feet hip distance apart, tops of feet and all toes connected to the mat.
- Activate Tzone as you lift belly, lift knees off mat and activate thighs (maintaining hips on mat)
- With elbows in at your sides, inhale to lift belly, head and shoulders off the mat
Note: imagine there is an ice cube under your belly you do not want to touch as you activate Tzone. Draw crown of the head forwards and imagine you are holding a lemon between the chin and chest.
- In easy sitting, sit high on your sit bones as you lengthen through crown of the head
- Inhale to reach right arm up towards the ceiling and place fingertips lightly on top of head
- Exhale to gently guide the chin down towards your right shoulder as you look down towards your right hip pocket
Note: No need to force the neck here. Remain sitting high on sit bones the entire time
- Hold for 5 breaths and then repeat on other side.