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.

Neck muscles, with platysma removed to show deeper layers.

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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