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.

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Kathy Hotchkiss

Kathy spent years working in Corporate America until taking a change of direction when her father passed away. She had stumbled upon yoga as a way to cope during her father's illness, which eventually led her on a quest to find more fulfillment on her life's path. Her journey led her to Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and eventually to Los Angeles where her love of yoga flourished. She completed her 200-hour yoga teacher training as well as Thai Massage Practitioner certification with Saul David Raye. She has also studied with Erich Schiffmann, Jamie Elmer, Shiva Rea, Mark Whitwell and Rod Stryker. Her interest in anatomy and body mechanics led her to become a licensed Yoga Tune Up® teacher in 2012. Kathy's desire is to lead her student's through a breath-inspired exploration of body and mind, so that they are able to connect to their own sacred wisdom and power to heal both emotionally and physically.

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Samantha

You’re right, so many people blame the upper trapezius on their neck and back pain. The levator scapulae is one I often treat, and when the neck can move out of head-forward posture, the SCM and scalenes have an easier time relaxing too.

Tanja

Thank you so much for this valuable article! I can only speak from experience! If I don’t stay on top of things esp my right levator scapulae starts complaining very easily!

Harriet

Great information and tips! I also recommend making sure your computer is elevated to eye level when working. I have a floor sitting platform at home with an adjustable stand for my laptop so that no matter whether I’m sitting in staff pose, a squat, cross legged, etc. I can adjust the height of my screen to reduce strain on my neck. I also try (operative word here is try) to hold my book up to the level of my face when reading on the train rather than tilting my head down toward my book for the same reasons (plus… Read more »

Ranghild Helmberger

I have to do a lot of homework for the Level 1 teacher training. This is not good for my neck, shoulders and upper back. But while doing this homework I am finding many good postures, rollings, explainations how I can fix my problems. You delivered me one. Thanks.

Leiloni Shine

This post is very valuable to me personally because I often find myself having issues with the neck, upper shoulders, and upper back. I didn’t realize that the levator scapulae was one of the main muscles responsible for holding up the head.

Lita

I also find relief for rolling the levator scapula. I have recently been wondering if strengthening the mid traps would help take some of the pressure off the upper traps and elevator scapula. Will look at mid trap blogs next and exercises. In my short car commute to work I have recently been focusing on engaging mid traps hoping to both strengthen them as well as counteracting the tension that builds in levator scap / upper traps the rest of the day!

Tiffany

My chiropractor recently taught me how to correctly set my shoulders for good posture. Although it was tiring at first, it’s amazing how much better my shoulders feel when I don’t slouch all the time.

Susan Jaffee

This article ought to be emailed to every person who sits in front of a computer for a living! Add the component of stress to their day and as you point out, you have a recipe for a lifetime of pain. Thank you for your article and ease of explaining this muscle.

katie

What a pesky muscle the levator scapula is! Great article. Thank you.

Cathy Corkery

I had never thought of the levator scapula in relation to fight/flight. That makes a lot of sense. I’m guessing that some work with conscious relaxation would be helpful as well. Thanks.

Emma

The levator scapulae can cause such pain in the shoulders, neck, and face! I think you’re right that poor posture and fight-or-flight response combined are major contributing factors to the poor condition of our levator scapulae and upper trapezius. In the last couple months I’ve been exploring major postural changes while I sit at my computer: First, I place a yoga block on the top of my head to keep the alignment. Then, I position my laptop high enough that I can look at the screen and peer down at the keyboard without disturbing the block. This combined with maintaining… Read more »

Sue Taylor

For many years I would find myself balancing the phone on my shoulder and stabilizing it with the shoulder and neck, stressing out the Lavator Scapula as you mentioned. I recall my massage therapist many years ago encouraging his clients to stop doing this. I hear his voice in my head if I am ever tempted to hold my phone in this way and avoid doing it. As I have progressed through my yoga journey and have become more keen on learning anatomy, I can see exactly why a habit that may seem minor or periodic can have a ripple… Read more »

Matt Halawnicki

I find it particularly true in terms of the levator being a muscle prone to tightness. It’s happened to me a couple times where it has seized up almost out of nowhere.

Stephanie

I find it very interesting how quickly you start to notice elevated shoulders and flexion in the neck once you start to correct it. I have this worked on regularly with my massage therapist as well really paying attention to how I stand/sit on a daily basis. Tiring, but worth the work:)

Emily Pantalone

My LS is in such bad shape all the time. Between the texting and computering and curling up to watch tv-ing… It took me a long time to realize that LS was the culprit – I too thought it was my traps and supra. One thing I didn’t know though is that the LS is a fight or flight muscle and tightens when you’re stressed…. I wonder why that is. I’m definitely prone to stress and carry it in my neck and shoulders. It’s all starting to make sense!

Melissa Harris

Yes! I’m a massage therapist and I can’t say I’ve found a human body that doesn’t exhibit some tension in the levator scapulae. I’m forever observing folks on their skinny little phones pulling their shoulder up towards their ear so they can multitask and do something else at the same time. Little do they realize the “something else” they are doing is creating a whole lot of tension in that levator scap! And quite an imbalance because they most likely always do it on the same side. I’ve had to become aware of this in my own body as well.

Ann

I’m among those who looked everywhere else for a solution to my shoulder pain – for years! – before realizing it was my postural habits that were wreaking havoc. Especially – you called – the levator scapula. Once I zoomed in on the LS, it was only a few months of work before the pain was gone. You hit the nail on the head here, thank you!

Andrea Loper

I found this article very illuminating about an area in the body that plagues me almost daily. With an 8-5 desk job, I am always fighting tensions in my neck and shoulders. Knowing that it’s not just my trapezius, but more likely my levator scapulae causing the rounding in my shoulders and forward slant of my head helps me identify how to begin to correct it. Thanks for the tip float the head backward will to ease the strain on the muscle–simple, but effective. I will also work to externall rotate and depress my shoulders as an easy fix at… Read more »

Tina Broome

I experience pain in my right shoulder and have even switched to using the computer mouse with my left hand to achieve respite on the right side. Your point about pain/discomfort involving not just the trapezius but “likely both” the trap & the levator scapula sounds about right.

rie katagiri

Unfortunately, doing hours of homework for YTU Level 1 Teacher training has my levator scapulaes acting terribly but fortunately, part of the homework is to read blogs here and voila! I got the perfect reminder for immediate self care! LS are softening and i just took a great breath. Thanks Kathy!

Kathleen

Thank you, Kathy. I have trouble with my levator scapulae and I think one of the main problems is the way I catch myself sleeping – on my stomach with my cervical spine rotated to the right. With my neck stuck in lateral flexion all night, it wreaks havoc on my posture during the day. I also carry around a heavy bag for commuting around all day(I switched to a backpack last year to distribute the weight more evenly). In my current training my teachers and fellow students have pointed out the misalignment of my head in poses, which is… Read more »

Lori Gunnell

Wow, KAthy. This is a GREAT explanation of the role and function of the levatur scapula. I appreciate your cues on prevention as I–like so many other desk-sitting computer users–suffer from a tight levatur. Information like this from you and other YTU teachers, along with therapy ball self care, has already made a big difference in helping me ease some of the tension in my neck. Thank you.

Heather

This is a really great explanation of the function of the levator scapulae. So many students seem to have shoulder and neck pain that could be fixed with proper alignment. It’s a great reminder too, I “floated my head back” as soon as I started reading your post.

Cat

Oh the levator scapulae, I only really understood this once I started take the tune-up ball classes and I am so conscious about this in my everyday activities. It’s incredible how practicing mindfulness allows us to become conscious so we can correct the head hanging forward, depressing the shoulders, so important especially if you work at a desk and find yourself hunched over with our head hanging forward. The purse is another culprit, keeping our LS and trapezius in contraction! Great piece.

Genevieve

Excellent article on the often overlooked levator scapulae. Working with people who have suffered a stroke, we tend to underestimate the role of the levotor as a synergist in establishing balanced posture and positionning of the scapula. I both look forward to and dread to observe the chronicity that will result in the constant use of smart phones… In the meantime though, i appreciate the cues given to me my YTU instructors regarding how much the weight of the human increases the further it moves forward.

Frances Rothenberg

I have always been more than casually aware of the muscles in and around my neck as they have habitually barked and howled at me for years. I am coming to the realization that poor posture and stress are the culprits and that using the Tune up balls and correct postural alignment for my body are probably going to result in decreased neck and shoulder pain and headaches.

Amalea Fisher

This article describes in a nutshell my neck and upper back issues. Once I discovered YTU and the ability to massage the levator scapulae, it completely relieved a lot of the chronic pain that I felt. It’s good to have good posture but massage is also very important for this area.

Lisa Cassidy

These are all of the muscles that I am draw to as well due to a disc bulge in my c-spine a couple of years ago. It was an understanding that life habits and posture were putting my body at risk and created an injury that was excruciating and had a time consuming recovery. Since it is so common, it seems that also makes it easy to overlook or accept. It usually isn’t until it is too late and there is pain that we are willing to reconsider alignment and habits.

Rachelle Tersigni

Interesting to learn that the levator scapulae attaches the the cervical vertebrae. Very helpful to know there is a direct connection to the head going forward and the muscle getting pulled. Very common in many people! Including myself! I do postural assessment at my work and I would say that 90% of people do this to some degree.

Dawn McCrory

Excellent post on a muscle that is often overlooked in favor of it’s neighbor, the upper trapezius. I find this muscle is often implicated in neck and shoulder pain. Poor postural alignment is the usual culprit! Great reminders for both head and scapular awareness.

Helen McAvoy

I now see how one can have all the tension in the neck with overtime to both the levator and traps. This info will add to my dialogue when teaching, as a reminder to keep shoulders down . students tend to assume the trapezius is the culprit…now i can be more specific!

Lynne S

How interesting! At one time my neck wouldn’t move in any direction at all. That coincided with me being EXTREMELY stressed out. I did not realize that the levator scapulae is automatically contracted and raised when the body faces a stressful or tense situation. I will definitely be more mindful of what’s going on with it.

Amanda Winkler

Kathy, thank you for reminding me of the Levator Scapulae’s role in creating upper back tension. I too, often cite the trapezius and forget about the Levator. Upon reading your suggestions to help relieve this muscle tension I am envisioning a class focused on head and shoulder alignment and how these two parts of the body can work well together when bringing awareness and understanding to alignment and intelligent muscles movement.

Yelimar

Its interesting to think that the lev. scap. is a fight or flight muscle. This makes so much sense now. I always get super cranky when this muscle feels stressed. I am not fun to be around. Not only does the way we feel affect our tissues, our tissues in my experience affect our mood too. So happy I have the tools to help myself now with the YTU therapy balls. It makes my experience easier and the life of those around me too ;).

Rachel S

Thanks so much for this great post. I’m brand new to YTU balls and can’t wait to start using them to alleviate my neck pain. I’m a New Yorker who carries multiple bags (yoga and purse), and I’m chronically hurting. I’m curious if anyone has any recommendations for what I can do while sitting at work to also assist in healing with the realignment of my neck/shoulders. I’m sitting for most of the day, have a lumbar pillow on my chair but still find it difficult to get a “tadasana” kind of spine while seated. I’m pretty sure that I’ve… Read more »

will cristobal

thank you for sharing. one thing jill miller has drilled into my head is “tadasan” (mountain pose) where i’m now constantly reminding myself to stack, straight spine, no shoulder shrugs. i’m doing tadasana spine now as i give you my cents!

Lauren C

Thank you for this article. All of my stress live in my shoulders and carrying heavy bags all over Nyc hasn’t helped my posture or alignment. I sometimes blame my neck pain on “sleeping wrong” but it is ultimately from the stress of everyday living. This article is so helpful in bringing awareness to posture and alignment.

Elizabeth W.

I am very intimate with my LS. I spent about 4 months with a chronically inflamed LS. It felt like I “slept wrong” all the time. This tiny little muscle caused headaches and chronic pain until I was finally able to unwind it. I suspect the culprit was over use and under attention. Thankfully I have a few tools in my bag to deal with my issues as well as my students.

Yelimar

One of my students suffers from chronic neck pain and I suspect the LS is his issue. His head is always justting forward. I am so glad I am now armed with a new arsenal of information and YTU ball therapy sequences to help him with his pain.

Matt

Wonderful article and so important, Kathy. Your simple reminder to depress the shoulders as well as float the head back can be overlooked.

Oliana

I relate to the neck pain created by poor posture and stress. Being in front of a laptop for too long forces the head to go forward and a bit down. And, as you very clearly explain, all this stress created by poor posture transfers to levator scapula and other surrounding muscles. But, since I was introduced to YTU balls (amen!) I have been using them to ease that tension. I just grab one and twisted along the length of LS and the sternocleidomastoid and feel immediate relief.