The levator scapulae can be a very problematic muscle when it comes to two chronic poor head and shoulder alignment issues that plague a lot of us — habitual shrugged shoulders, and habitual forward head movement. I have spent much of my life doing both — hence my intrigue with this muscle. I have also spent many, many hours holding a telephone pinned between my ear and the shoulder; and many days walking around with heavy backpacks, computer bags, etc hanging from my shoulder. I now know that these actions can severely aggravate the levator scapulae. One more interesting and important fact to note is that the levator scapulae is often referred to as a fight or flight muscle, as it is automatically contracted and raised when the body faces a stressful or tense situation – and how often does this happen in daily life?
“Levator” is from the same Latin root as elevator. Scapula is Latin for shoulder blade. The levator scapulae sits behind the posterior scalene. It is a thin, flat muscle that lies under the trapezius muscle in its lower portion, and under the splenius capitis and the sternocleidomastoid in its upper portion. The muscle’s origination actually starts as four attachments to each of the first four cervical vertebrae. The insertion is on the superior angle of the scapula. This arrangement allows the levator scapulae to assist in raising the scapula (along with the upper trapezius, rhomboids) and thereby raising the shoulder. As an attachment to the cervical vertebrae it is also responsible for pulling the neck back, or preventing it from falling too far forward. These functions often get the muscle into trouble, usually from simple overuse. If we add daily stress, along with the strain of the head often floating forward because of bad posture, it’s pretty clear that this muscle is struggling with a lot of additional and unnecessary work load.
Oftentimes people overlook the levator scapulae when they are having shoulder or neck pain, assuming it’s the larger and more prominent trapezius muscle that is the cause of their problems. Most likely both muscles are involved. Because the levator scapulae helps to hold the head up – a tough job given the head weighs over ten pounds — chronic tightness in both can lead to significant neck pain. Trigger points also often develop in the levator scapulae.
In regard to therapy for this muscle, have the student practice keeping the head in proper alignment with the body. Floating the head backward will ease the strain on the muscle. Also, encouraging students to keep the shoulders depressed in daily movement can also be very therapeutic and crucial in a healthy, and pain-free, posture.