The upper trapezius can become tight and shortened when you subconsciously lift the shoulders leading to general tension in the area. The reason for lifting your shoulder can be anything from being cold to feeling stressed.
The upper trapezius is a large, flat muscle close to the skin that covers the space between the neck and shoulder. The upper trapezius raises the shoulder, brings the shoulder blades closer to each other, rotates the head and helps the head to tilt to the side.
It is quite common to have difficulty relaxing this area when you feel stressed. The upper trapezius is usually the area where the tension shows up. Since the upper trapezius raises the shoulder, and if you are often stressed, this muscle never gets to relax and will become very tight and short, leading to pain and fatigue.
Symptoms of Tightness
Headache at the base of the skull, above the ear, outside of the eye, or behind the eye
Local pain across the shoulder girdle
Local pain between the shoulder blades
Difficulty rotating or tilting your head to the side
You should be able to:
Tilt your head between 35 and 45 degrees to the side
Rotate your head almost 90 degrees in each direction
If you do not have the required range of motion or it is tight getting to the end-range, you probably have a tight upper trapezius muscle. It is not uncommon to be tighter on one side. If that is the case, you want to focus your attention on that side – although taking care of both sides is not a bad thing.
How to release the muscle
Once you have identified the upper trapezius as the muscle that is giving you fits, the first order of business is to reduce the pain that it is causing you. Since the muscle is in a constant state of activity, especially if you are stressed, a good way to reduce the tension is through statically releasing the muscle. This will ease any trigger points or adhesions you have built up and help the muscle relax.
Here is the protocol:
Stand against a wall but facing away from it.
Take a tennis ball, lacrosse ball or soft ball and place it between the wall and your upper back halfway between your neck and shoulder blade.
Step away from the wall about 6 to 10 inches and lean back until you find a spot that has a pain threshold of between 5 to 8 on a scale of 1 to 10, ten being excruciating. It should cause enough tension on the muscle to release trigger points.
Stay on this spot between 30 seconds to 2 minutes or until you feel the muscle release.
If the pain subsides before 2 minutes, feel free to find a new spot and hold until it releases. There are usually several spots in this muscle that need to be eased.