The last thing my massage therapist said to me was, “I never knew the scalenes could be so tight, poor thing.” My first reaction: Yay! I know what my scalenes are! All this anatomy studying has paid off! My second thought: How in the world could this have happened without me noticing? With enthusiasm and inspiration fresh from my recent Yoga Tune Up® Level 1 Teaching Training, I decided to do some research. This is what I found.
The scalenes are a group of three muscles – the anterior, middle, and posterior – located on the anterior, lateral side of the neck sandwiched between the sternocleidomastoid and the trapezius. They originate from the side of the cervical vertebrae, descend inferiorly beneath the clavicle, and attach to the first and second ribs. It’s important to note that the brachial plexis, a large bundle of nerves innervating the shoulder and upper extremity, and the subclavian artery pass through a small gap between the anterior and middle scalenes. We’ll get to why this is important in a minute.
Unilaterally, all three scalenes laterally flex the head and neck to the same side and rotate the head and neck to the opposite side. Bilaterally, the anterior scalenes flex the head and neck. When inhaling deeply, ALL the scalenes help to elevate the ribs for a deep breath. If you brace your phone between your ear and your shoulder, or you look over your shoulder to change lanes while driving, you’re using your scalenes.
Unfortunately, these muscles, like any of the others in our body, can be over used, abused, or stressed. Not surprisingly, one of the top culprits of tense scalenes is poor posture. Allowing the head to hang while hunched over the computer or steering wheel or bending your head down to text as many of us do each day will put increased tension on the neck, causing the scalenes to work overtime. One of my bad habits is carrying around my hefty over-the-shoulder purse. I always carry it on the same shoulder, which I realize now will cause postural imbalance. No wonder that side of my neck was the side the massage therapist worked on the most!
What’s interesting about the scalenes is that when they become tight from stress, overuse, or poor posture, they don’t necessarily cause neck pain, as you would expect. More common symptoms are numbness, tingling, cold or loss of feeling in the arm, hand or fingers, or a sharp, shooting sensation down the arm or even into the chest. Remember the brachial plexus and subclavian artery I mentioned weaving through the middle and anterior scalenes? These can become compressed or impinged by tight scalenes, which will constrict nerve impulses and/or blood flow to the extremities. If sustained long enough or repeated often enough, this impingement can even cause TOS – Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, a condition stemming from compression of blood vessels and/or nerves due to a decreased passageway exiting the chest at the top of the rib cage resulting in pain, numbness, or tingling in the neck, shoulders, arms, or hands. Hmm. So, my scalenes have been screaming at me and I didn’t even know it! I had no idea that that twinge in my chest, the weird feeling in my arm, the tingling in my hand, or my little finger falling asleep had anything to do with my neck!
On Friday, I’ll show you some great scalene savers!
Wow! I love this article! I feel like this might be the cause of my cousins severe shooting pain a while back. Her pain was shooting down her left arm so intensely that she thought she was having a heart attack. I forward this article to her and can’t wait to find a rolling sequence for her to work out those tense scalenes! Thank you!
This is an enlightening post. I have wondered for a long time if chilly extremities were stress related. Next time I have cold fingers, I am going to roll my neck. Thank you :).
well said- so clear and yet so specific. I think mine are pretty tight as well and when i do ball work around my neck it is pretty intense. thanks for the tips!
Your article was enlightening; I constantly tell myself to bring my head back… I notice there might be a foot of space from my head to the head rest in my vehicle while I drive! I know that’s terrible, apparently have had this habit for some time because it feels uncomfortable to push my head back in its proper position. I need to form better posture habits, if it wasn’t for yoga I don’t know if I would be aware of these imbalances. At least I know where my short falls are and I try to correct myself as much as possible. Additionally, after reading your article I’m wondering if that is why my arms fall asleep while I’m asleep in bed!
I used to be guilty of holding the phone with my shoulder. Each day, I become increasingly aware of the position of my head and neck and I see improvements in range of motion because of it. Thank you for this insight!
As a Neuromuscular Therapist, I often work on clients with very tight scalenes that come to me thinking that they are having either circulation problems or carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms. They are surprised to find out that the reason of their arm numbness is their over used and abused scalenes.
I too am guilty of the same side purse carrying and I find that how I hold my head constantly looking slightly to the right while driving has fatigued and strained the scalenes on the left side of my neck. Very interesting to look out for other symptoms of over use like numbing, tingling, and pain in the extremities.
This post is a great embracing of blind spots!! No discouragement or frustration about the state of your tissues; rather, enthusiasm for the journey you are about embark on in order to troubleshoot your scalenes. This post captures the context of my sankalpa: The obstacle is the way.
Definitely good to know that stress and tightness in the scalenes won’t necessarily cause pain. I do enjoy rolling out the neck with YTU balls. I haven’t experienced any pain in that region, but since I read this article, I now know that it doesn’t mean they aren’t being treated poorly! I will continue to roll them.
Christina~ I am spending more hours ‘chained’ to my desk at work. Sitting for long periods of time, hunched over, head forward and talking on the phone with it cradled on my shoulder. I am also guilty of spending too much time looking down at my phone texting. It’s no wonder why my neck and upper back feels like it’s on fire! To add to those woes, i have a herniated disc in my neck. I have used the YTU balls on the scalenes and gently on the back of the neck. What would be most helpful for me is to remind myself to keep my body in better alignment and maintain better posture.
Interesting piece. I had recently come a across Thoracic Outlet Syndrome in another article and this brings more clarity to my understanding of how it may occur. Looking forward to the next post. Thank you!
Do the scalenes then stabilize the neck?
This article is very interesting. Not only did it help me to familiarize these muscles by relating their location and function, but it described some unexpected complications of having these scalene muscles too tight. While I think it very important that anyone experiencing these sort of symptoms should seek immediate medical attention to rule out heart related disease as the primary cause, this article could provide a useful explanation for a person experiencing these frightening perturbations who has an otherwise healthy cardiovascular system. I will definitely think about this when I am stretching my neck next time!