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The Overlooked Culprit of Neck Pain: The SCM

If you carry neck and shoulder tension (are there people who don’t?), here’s a stretch that might change your life.

You’re probably grasping at the back of your neck to ease the tension. Maybe digging into the base of your skull and into the tops of your shoulders. But that’s still only half the picture. Neck tension - especially due to chronic, postural issues - is more complex and involves muscle imbalances in both the back AND the front of the body.

Meet your SCM.

The sternocleidomastoid (SCM) muscle is that strong, ropy muscle that stretches from behind your ear down to the front of your throat (it attaches to the collar bone close to your midline), creating a V-shaped divot at the front of your throat.

It’s a hard-working muscle that turns your head from side to side, and helps bend your head to your chest. When bad posture happens, and our head starts creeping forward and our shoulders hunch, the SCM gets recruited to hold your bowling-ball of a head up. Given how much of our day we spend hunched forward, it’s easy to see how the SCM gets overworked, tight and shortened.

First let’s talk about how to grasp the SCM between your thumb and index finger. Different from the image shown below, I prefer to use the same side hand for the same side SCM (the right hand to massage the right SCM). I use a grip like you’re handing someone a credit card, or pulling a book off a shelf with the index finger closer to the Adam's apple. I find it easier to grip the muscle either at the level of the Adam’s apple or just about where the jaw bone meets your neck. It might help if you turn your head in the opposite direction (i.e., turn your head to the left to find your right SCM).

As for the stretch, I give my patients a few variations on a progression from a mild to a deeper, more intense stretch:

  1. Mild but still effective: find the SCM and just squeeze it. Gently pinch and roll the SCM between your fingers. Go up and down the length of the muscle.

  2. Try gently pulling or lifting the SCM away from the other structures in your neck towards the back of your neck. If your SCM is really tight and shortened, this may be hard to do.

  3. For a more intense stretch, torque the SCM. Once you have a grip, slowly twist - like you’re turning a key - towards the back of your neck.

HOLD: a minute each side

PERFORM: a few times a day

A few words of caution with these stretches:

  • Please don’t push too deep into your neck where you might hit other tender places, like the carotid artery and internal jugular vein. If you feel your pulse while you’re gripping your SCM, adjust and move away from your midline.

  • Massage one side at a time; doing both at the same time may make you dizzy

  • If your neck skin is thin and delicate, I’d recommend against over-doing the more aggressive pulling.

You’ll feel the release immediately.

Stretching your SCM will also ease tension in the back of your neck. It’s offering some slack in that tug of war between the tight front and back of your neck.

This stretch will relieve your headaches and jaw tension.

Believe it or not, there are also cosmetic advantages to stretching your SCM. It’ll help prevent that matronly thickening of your neck and help your neck look longer.

Remember that muscles only know how to contract; they need help letting go. Now go give your hard-working SCM some much-needed love.


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