With apologies to Nora Ephron, I’ve seen a lot of clients lately who feel bad about their neck. Between poor posture and car accidents, it’s no wonder! A handful of hardworking muscles support and move that ten-pound ball we call a head, as well as try to protect us from whiplash. Not only can constriction in the neck be a pain in the neck, it can cause problems in distal joints like the wrists and restrict breathing.
Working from superficial to deep, here’s a quick rundown of the muscles between your head and shoulders, what they do, and how you can help them help you:
The platysma is a broad, flat, (word-of-the-day alert!) integumentary muscle–meaning it is embedded in fascia as opposed to attached to bone. It looks like a ponytail anchored at the corners of the mouth and chin, streaming down the front and sides of your neck to the pectoralis major and deltoids. It pulls the corners of the mouth down & back (think street smell in August during a garbage strike, and say yeeeesh to shake hands with your platysma). It also elevates the skin of the chest when breathing is labored–as may be evident on someone running or cycling fast and hard. (Some describe the platysma as wrinkling the neck, and suggest it may be related to the panniculus carnosus—the muscle that twitches when horses shake flies off their skin. Who knew?) When the platysma gets tight, well, as they say, stuff rolls downhill (or in this case, from superficial to deep), you can expect the underlying muscles to follow suit.
The sternocleidomastoid, or SCM, connects the sternum, clavicle and mastoid process to each other. If you pinch the ropes on either side of the divet between your collarbones, you’ll find it. Aside from being a ‘whiplash’ muscle (limting neck extension and flexion), the SCM is your dancing-at-the-club-pitcheck muscle, the checking-your-blindspot-while-driving-muscle, the tucking-your-violin-under-your-chin muscle, the take-a-breath-while-swimming-the-crawl muscle. It also helps you breathe by elevating your ribcage during inhalation. Overuse injury, anyone? (Fun fact: your carotid artery is deep to the SCM (tread lightly!), so if you take your pulse on the side of your neck, it will read artificially low because your blood pressure drops when the carotid is pressed—therefore, check you pulse at your wrist.)
Deepst in the neck we have the scalenes (posterior, middle and anterior). These lateral flexors run underneath and at a diagonal to the SCM. Beginning at the cervicle spine, they attach to the first and second ribs, elevating them during–guess what?– inhalation! Some portion of the poulation also has a scalene minimus which actually connects to the lung. Did you ever think your neck was so involved in every breathe you take?
No discussion of anterior neck muscles is complete without talking about the associated nerve bundles—the cervical plexus and brachial plexus.
The cervical plexus is deep to the SCM and most of the bundle controls the head and neck, except one—the phrenic nerve—which controls the respiratory diaphragm (the theme continues). It can be damaged by surgeries and injections, although rarely in spinal cord injuries. Accidents resulting in paralysis most often occur below C-4, leaving the phrenic nerve intact. Obviously though, if the SCM is tight, it could affect restrict the phrenic nerve, and your breathing.
The brachial plexus passes between, or is sometimes embedded in, the anterior and middle scalenes. If the scalenes are tight and constrict the brachial plexus, discomfort (aka thoracic outlet syndrome) can radiate into the chest and arm, and even as far as the thumb. My personal experience has been that clients who have been in car accidents often have resulting wrist pain diagnosed as carpal tunnel. Where surgery hasn’t fixed their wrists, YTU neck stretches have. Your mileage may vary, but this approach is worth exploring with clients who have experienced whiplash-like trauma and related wrist pain.
So go on, take a deep breath and plunge in neck-deep.
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I’ve noticed a linkage between the breath and tight neck muscles in my massage clients and have been doing myofascial stretch on the platysma prior to going deeper on the SCM and scalenes. Seems to make a big difference in their ability to breath better as well as helping their neck pain! Thanks for connecting the dots for me!
Thank you for this easy-to-follow anatomy lesson about the muscles of the neck. You have such a gift for making this stuff accessible to everyone! The more I read, the more I realize how little I know…and the more inspired I am to figure it out and learn how to take better care of myself.
I’ve never really put together the neck/ respiratory connection until now. And I love the stretch from Dawn above. I also have pain in my right wrist and I noticed when I first laid used the tune up balls on my pec minor, I had referred pain in my right wrist. It was a big ah ha moment for me. I always thought that the pain was from my shoulder (could be part of it), but now I’m exploring further up and I will add more neck exercises now.
I just stumbled on this article as I was searching for information on the scalanes. My massage therapist informed me today that she didn’t know the neck could be as tight as mine. She said it mostly stemmed from the scalenes. It was interesting to read how much neck tension can affect the breathe. How it’s all connected. I often times don’t feel like I can freely breathe. I thought it was a diaphragm issue. After reading this, I now think it’s a combination of my neglected diaphragm and my tight neck. I continue to learn something new! I was disappointed, however, as the links to the neck stretches / exercises / and pain relief videos no longer work.
Great article…I have just recently started spending more time rolling out my SCM. This was n the advice of one of my teachers who noticed a slope in my posture and restrictions in my breathing. I got all teary inside when he suggested/noticed this as the connection to a traumatic childhood automatically surfaced and it was if he pinpointed tiny remnants of self doubt and insecurity that have been carried there for years. It feels good to roll away at the tight fascia and the SCM in particular to generate more space and hopefully to extend my breathe! Next on to the scalenes to roll those out!! I found this a really interesting article! Thanks….I’m just going to link to the YTU neck exercise!
It truly seems that breath work is embedded in and connected the entire body! To realize that the neck is so related to every breath is fascinating – the connection of the scalenes to the first and second ribs is makes neck health imperative for breath. The YTU neck stretches free up these muscles to move smoothly and welcome steady and well aligned breath – the key to healthy movement and beyond. Thanks for this article – it was a pleasure to read and think about.
I wasn’t in a car accident, however, I was in a yoga accident. You would think when you get to a certain age you would learn to be a little more careful’, apparently not. I was experiencing incredible pain in my right hand that would wake me out of a sound sleep. After going to a chiropractor and a physical therapist without relief I stumbled on thoracic outlet syndrome. I’m not sure that’s what I had but when I did the stretches it went away. Happy about that but wish someone I had gone to for care knew about it.
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Many of my students complain of neck issues, but I never thought to associate the neck pain to the wrist pain that they may be having. But with this explaination of the humna body, it totatlly makes sense why there can be distal discomfort. I now have a better assessement tool to figure out what can alieviate a student’s discomfort. Thanks!
Fascinating! A year ago I had an injury resulting from my carelessness on a trampoline and jammed my low back to the point it was difficult to walk. ( It was also happened to be an emotionally challenging time in my life) – the severe pain later moved up to my neck and I could not turn it at all to the left. I finally had to get steroid/painkiller shots to function. I started doing more yoga as a result. The pain began to dissipate, however, 4 months later I began to have spells on the mat where I could not breathe in enough air and I would panic to the point I would cry and have to pause. It was alarming. I kept doing yoga and started taking YTU classes. I remember that it would hurt to even touch the space behind my clavicle. I think I got used to the limited range of motion I had and frantic breathing during my practice. I have been doing the YTU neck exercises frequently and after reading this article I am suddenly stunned because I am realizing I no longer have the pain behind my clavicle, in fact, I have very little neck pain at all and I am finally flirting with maintaining ujjayi breathing during an entire class. I had no idea they could be related. It was. wow. Thank you. I will continue to work deeper through this.
I carry so much of my tension in my neck, never knowing how it connected to so many other parts of my body, now seeing the muscles of my neck I will better understand how to stretch and strengthen them. It is so often overlooked, and now I will remember to pay attention to the muscles of my neck.
It is amazing how everything is connected and one thing leads to another. It makes so much sense. Often the neck has been overlooked. But it’s health is just as important as one’s spine. It is the bridge from the brain to the rest of the body and deserves more care and attention.
It never ceases to amaze me what a miracle our bodies are, and how much I have to learn. Like many people, my neck is where I hold so much tension. I’m still not sure I fully understand each piece and will look to uncover more, but it helps to begin visualizing that all these neck muscles are ultimately connected to ribs and develop more consciousness and awareness while I breathe.
There is a very interesting connection between the neck and wrist. I am glad this is touched upon, as it provides evidence of the interconnection between tissues from different areas of the body. I think as a therapeutic tool it is important to think about how we can improve or affect an area by working on a very connected, but distant group of muscles or tissues. My clients with wrist pain often have a slew of shoulder and neck pathologies that are not as often expressed but are most certainly interrelated. The great thing is there is a whole chain of tissues to work on to improve function of both areas. It shows you how integrated and fascinating the human body is.
I recently learned about the role that neck muscles when we breathe. This article reminded me of a recently sailing trip. Keeping your balance on a sailboat is a full-body, all muscle workout, but one thing you’re constantly doing is looking around using that “check your blindspot while driving” muscle. I associate that whiplash feeling with a rough sail. I hadn’t realize that neck stretching – not shoulder and neck massaging – might be the way to reduce the potential for that whiplash feeling.
This blog allowed me to have an “Ah-Ha!” moment– who would’ve thought that my recent feelings of not being able to get a full/deep breath (feeling of having a larger “dead zone”) in my upper lungs could have something (possibly EVERYTHING) to do with my stiff/achey neck muscles?! I never realized that the SCM and scalenes played into one’s ablity to breathe b/c they connect to the ribcage and lungs. Also, since when one muscle is upset, it makes sense that the surrounding/underlying muscles would also “get salty” and start acting up too. I’d originally thought that my trapezius muscles were to blame for discomfort in my shoulders, but now I realize that the traps aren’t acting alone in thier deviance; the SCM and scalenes (anterior/middle/posterior) could be just as culpable and most likely are the reason for that feeling of diminished breath capacity.
I have pain in my wrists too and the more I am looking into this the more it appears to be caused by the tension in my neck. I’m going to start giving myself a lot of self care to this area and really explore the muscles in the neck. I recently learned of the SCM and scalenes, but from that diagram there are many more to look at. I also never knew how much the neck was involved with breathing, I’m curious to monitor how my breathing is going while I have this neck tension/pain and see if it differs once I clear this up. The platysma as being an integumentary muscle also looks worth exploring, I am not in touch with muscles that are not attached to bones in my body at all.
Thank you for your anatomy lesson and how these muscles relate specifically to breathing. Due to my own neck history..it has me thinking more about the recent increase in dizzy spells. I do have low blood pressure but lately, I get dizzy from just standing up from a sitting position. When I’m teaching yoga, this can be happening throughout the class. I will pay closer attention to my neck allignment and tension.
Very interesting article/lesson on the neck area. The stretch Dawn describes is close to what Jill calls The Marlon Brando exersise. I do a technique called Rejuvenescence which does similar muscles/skin holds which enables it to release organically. My friend came to me this morning with a sore neck upon waking, couldnt turn his head left at all and after s session of 1/2 Jin Shin Jyutsu and 1/2 Rejuvenescence he had easy rotation to both sides and no pain!
[…] In my client’s case the criminals turned out to be her anterior neck muscles (see related article for details). Nine car accidents (yes, 9—none of which were her fault, she claims—but […]
I have been practicing yoga for many, many years. When I first started yoga, more class time was devoted to stretching the neck and warming it up before the practice. One rarely sees postures like lion or neck movements in classes today.
wow I love this article, I also learned that the Platysma muscle bands can become thick and cord like, which causes them to tent the skin of the neck as they contract, tether, or dangle between the jawbone and the collarbone. thats what we call a double chin! its also important to keep that muscle strong! love your stretch dawn thanks!
Lots of great information about the neck!
Dawn, I just tried your stretch, also , and it is quite intense – great stretch!
As I brought this up with Jill in class, my fingers sometimes are numb in the morning – Jill suggested that I look at her blog about sleeping with supported pillows elsewhere, and now I can see why.
The problem might not just be at the area where the bracchial plexus crosses under the clavicle and pec minor, but could also be in the neck area. Sleeping with a pillow to elevate that area might just be the thing to do! Now I see why!
Thank you for including so much information in such a succinct and logical manner. I had to read your blog a second time and will probably need to read it again in order to absorb all the anatomical implications. Your point about what may happen if the brachial plexus is constricted and how the symptoms can be mistaken for carpal tunnel should be disseminated as widely as possible. I also tried the stretch described by Dawn and am going to teach it to others.
After years of headstands, I can now see in great detail how strong your neck has to be to support safely. In daly life, it has to work hard to support this 8-10lb bowling ball called your head. How strong it must be to support the100 pounds in headstand! All the more reason to stress caution and preparation before attempting it.
this is awesome! I had no idea the neck was so involved with breathing. I already feel myself tuning-in to what labor the neck goes through to pull and lift so I can breathe easier. And i realize now that a slumped back makes that job harder and arches the neck so it causes even more strain. wonderful blog =) nice and heavy with information. this makes so much sense as a singer as well why not to be tense in the throat!
About 12 yrs. ago a car I was driving was rear-ended and I suffered whiplash as a result. I did not experience wrist pain but did experience numbness and tingling sensations down my arms, also I was unable to raise my arms very high (could not lift a glass up onto it’s shelf). I was told to discontinue my yoga practice until the physical situations w/ the shoulders and arms were resolved but I did receive regular massage. Eventually I regained full sensation and use of my arms and resumed my yoga practice. C1 and C2 do subluxate from time to time. Not sure if this is a residual from the whiplash or something else. If I start feeling dizzy and/or nauseous and my neck is feeling tight I know it’s time to visit the chiropractor. I do try the YTU balls on the neck but it only seems to be a stop gap once the subluxation has occurred.
I like the twisitng/rotational motion Dawn describes above… not sure about the funny noises, maybe to feel like the ‘creature’. I liken the facial expression to old whiskey drinking bar flys. The YTU therapy balls work this area as well against a block on the wall into the subclavicular groove, side to side to cross fiber. Holding a YTU ball static on thoses fibers with pressure into the ball and then doing the rotational motion feels awsome.
I love that you mention the platysma — The Trail Guide calls it the “Creature from the Black Lagoon” muscle. I learned a wonderful stretch for this muscle during a reposturing workshop that I’ll try to describe, simply because it is so helpful to get some movement into the platysma before going deeper into the muscles of the neck. Place both hands just under the left clavicle (toward the middle of the clavicle), then draw the skin and superficial muscles of the chest down and toward the lower armpit. Rotate the head to the right, and then lift the chin up, extending the neck in lateral rotation. Jut the chin out like a bulldog, and begin to make funny noises. The platysma stretches, and you’ll feel movement under your hands. Repeat on the other side. Voila!