Have chronic headaches or neck pain? Your scalene muscles might be at fault.
The scalene muscles are a group of muscles located on the side of the neck. Originating from the neck vertebra, they run all the way down to the first rib. The primary purpose of the scalene muscles is to laterally flex the neck (i.e., to tilt your head sideways). These muscles can also be involved in respiration. Excessive apical breathing, or shallow upper-respiratory breaths, may result in scalene overactivity and tension.
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This tension is directly associated with neck pain and chronic headaches. Ever have a stressful day when your head hurts? Odds are it’s because you’re chest breathing and creating tension in your scalene muscles.
A simple test: stand facing a mirror and take a deep inhale. Do your shoulders rise up toward your ears? If they do, you have some work to do. Here are two ways to reduce scalene muscle pain.
Deep breathing should optimize the full capacity of your lungs. Unfortunately, apical breathing does not allow for full inhalation or exhalation. It can be seen in athletes when they become short of breath. Regaining control of your breathing strategies and techniques often promotes faster recovery, by facilitating efficient inhaling and exhaling. Optimizing your ability to control your breathing reduces scalene muscle recruitment and reduces overactivity.
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- Lie on your back with your knees slightly bent.
- Place a pillow or rolled towel under your head.
- Place your palms on the lower portion of your rib cage.
- Gently inhale through your nose. Your stomach should noticably rise up.
- Exhale slowly through your nose.
- Repeat gently as your brain and body reconnect with each other.
Fix Your Posture
Another primary cause of scalene overactivity is postural dysfunction. The muscles of the neck work in a cross-sling formation. As we increase hours of work in front of screens and continually neglect to counterbalance our working posture with postural strengthening, a dysfunction of the sling can occur. The body becomes tighter through a subset of muscles and others become weaker. The scalene muscles suffer from overactivity. Unfortunately, it’s a perpetuating cycle, neglected until dysfunction results in pain.
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Addressing workstation setups may be crucial in preventing the cascade of events. More importantly, specific neck-strengthening exercises and thoracic spine stretching can assist in preventing and alleviating symptoms. The head is one the heaviest parts of the body, yet many people forgo strengthening their necks.
Deep cervical strengthening exercises are the most practical in-work solution. Seated at your desk, pull your head back, create a double chin and maintain eye level in front or slightly above you. You should not be looking down at the ground! Hold this position for 10-30 seconds. As you progress, the aim of the game is endurance. We are targeting postural control, and it would be optimal if you could sit like this all day, every day.
Don’t overlook the influence of other components of the spine. A good chair can go a long way. Foam rolling through the thoracic spine enhances the body’s ability to extend and “open up,” helping you sit in a more upright position.