If you're stuck behind a desk or the wheel for long periods of time, the upper back and neck area are common sites for sore muscles. The culprit could very well be the result of two tight muscles known as the "traps" — the trapezius muscle. Neck misalignment, often caused by poor posture (rounded shoulders and a forward head tilt), can develop from many daily activities where you remain in one position for a prolonged time. The upper traps are then under constant tension, eventually causing the muscles to become thick and very tight, which can result in stiffness and pain.
Poor posture is not the only culprit here. Painful muscle spasms in the traps can also be triggered by something as casual as sleeping in an uncomfortable position to more serious conditions such as injuries to the muscles and ligaments in the neck. Repetitive motion, being sedentary or just plain lack of exercise can also lead to a tight and painful neck.
The trapezius muscle, our largest neck and upper-back muscle, is often thought of as being one muscle. But it's actually two large, diamond-shaped muscles, one on each side of the spine, extending from the base of the neck to the edge of your shoulders, then narrowing down through the center of your back to about waist level.
Each muscle is divided into three sections: The upper traps helps to elevate shoulders and move your head to the side and to the back. When you shrug your shoulders you are using the upper part of the traps. The middle traps has a different function; it pulls the shoulder blades back toward each other. The lower traps draws the shoulder blades downward.
All three sections of the trapezius need to be developed equally to achieve proper posture and ensure shoulder health. When the traps are strong, they help support movement in the neck and shoulder blades as well as in the arms.
Researchers report in the November 2009 Journal of Applied Physiology that strengthening these muscles can reduce pain caused by "trapezius myalgia," a tenderness and tightness in the upper trapezius (Weill Cornell Medical College Food & Fitness Advisor, February 2010). And researchers from Sweden, who compared various types of exercise for people whose pain was due to trapezius myalgia, found the most effective pain reduction resulted from high-intensity strength training three times a week for 20 minutes; consult a physical therapist or a qualified personal trainer before beginning this program.
Some tips to avoid painful traps:
TUNE IN TO YOUR POSTURE: Become aware of the "forward head tilt." Remember to sit up straight, lower your shoulders and bring your head back. Contracting abdominal muscles and lifting rib cage slightly will help to straighten your back. It also brings your head more into a proper alignment, which will remove tension from upper back and neck muscles. When reading or sitting at the computer, keep your head and neck in line with your torso, preventing the forward head movement.
BE A FIDGETER: Whenever you find yourself in a position that you will be sitting for two to three hours, take short breaks to stretch and move around.
SHARE THE LOAD: When carrying groceries, packages or heavy shoulder bags, don't always use the same arm or shoulder — alternate sides. Shoulders become elevated to hold the extra weight. One of the common causes of trapezius strain is too often positioning the shoulders up near the ears.
Some exercises to try:
Shoulder shrug (strengthens trapezius and shoulder muscles):
Standing tall with shoulders back, hold a weight in each hand, arms straight down by your sides, palms facing inward. Slowly raise shoulders upward toward your ears; hold for a count of three, then slowly return to original position. Begin with a weight that you can lift 8 to 10 times. Tips: Contract abdominals and keep knees relaxed.
One-arm row (targets the traps, biceps and shoulders):
Place right knee on a bench or exercise ball, then support upper body by placing right hand on bench or ball. Holding a weight in left hand, extend arm straight down. Keeping elbow close to your side, pull weight upward until it reaches the side of your torso. Hold a few seconds, then return to original position; repeat 8 to 10 times each side. Tips: Contract abdominals throughout movement and keep neck neutral with the spine. Do not jerk the arm; use smooth movements.
Shoulder squeeze (strengthens the traps and helps to improve posture):
Standing or sitting, bend elbows at a 90-degree angle with lower arms extended in front of you. Keeping elbows touching the waist, rotate arms outward, pinching shoulder blades together. Hold for 3 to 4 seconds, then return to original position. Repeat 8 to 10 times and do several times a day. Tip: Do not try to lift shoulders.
If you are 50 or older and have not been exercising, check with your physician before beginning any exercise program. Trainer Sally Anderson is happy to hear from readers but cannot respond to individual queries. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This month we've got some exercises to strengthen the trapezius and shoulder muscles. Lucy and George Flatley, 75 and 82, of St. Petersburg, demonstrate the exercises. (If you have shoulder or neck issues, consult with your physician before beginning any of the exercises.) Sally Anderson