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!