(Part 1 of 3)
Have you ever felt like a sword is piercing through your eye? Do you get massive headaches or an aching jaw? Do you experience tingling fingers or shooting pain down your arm? Has anyone ever told you that your shoulders are uneven? Is your grip weak? All of these issues and more are caused by arguably the most common compensation of all – “overactive” upper trapezius (or traps).
The upper trap extends from ligaments near the first 6 cervical vertebrae to the top of your shoulder. The muscle normally functions to upwardly rotate the shoulder blade, elevating the scapula and extending, to help you raise your arm above 90 degrees. The upper trapezius muscle also rotates and side-bends the neck. When the upper trap functions as it should, all is good with the neck and shoulder complex.
What are some causes of “overactive” upper traps? If you have weak rotator cuff muscles along with weak scapular stabilizing muscles (rhomboid, middle trap, and lower trap), every time you raise your arm, whether overhead or out to the side, above 90 degrees or below, the upper trap jumps in to assist in your movement to allow you to do what you need to do and compensate for your weak stabilizers – those poor little guys!
Whether it’s reaching for a dish in an overhead cupboard, painting a ceiling, driving with your arm leaning on the door, or playing baseball in a summer rec league, you may feel like you’re doing just fine; but overuse of the upper trap muscle results in increasing muscle tightness, even while at rest. Subtle symptoms will start to occur- neck stiffness with prolonged computer work, headaches when driving, or shooting pain down the arm when holding an object. Even waking up with tingling-numb hands are all signs of an overused upper trap.
How do you know if this is the source of your symptoms? First, find a physical therapist who can diagnose the problem. When the upper trap is excessively tight, it frequently sends trigger points to the same side eye, which feels like a piercing pain going directly through your eye.
When the upper trap is excessively tight, the levator and scalene tend to be tight as well, pulling the posterior first rib into an elevated position. This can compress the brachial plexus, a bundle of nerves that exits the cervical spine levels and extend to the muscles of the arm. The result is pain, numbness, tingling, and burning sensations down the arm, and even arm weakness if the nerve compression continues. These symptoms are often called a brachial plexus injury, Erb’s palsy, or brachial radiculitis. When in doubt get it checked out so you don’t cause nerve damage. Stay tuned for further posts on helpful philosophies, exercises and stretches regarding the upper trapezius and its shoulder stabilizing friends.
 Am J Sports Med. 2007 Oct;35(10):1744-51. Epub 2007 Jul 2. Rehabilitation of scapular muscle balance: which exercises to prescribe? Cools AM1, Dewitte V, Lanszweert F, Notebaert D, Roets A, Soetens B, Cagnie B, Witvrouw EE.
 Clin Biomech (Bristol, Avon). 2014 Feb;29(2):201-5. doi: 10.1016/j.clinbiomech.2013.11.011. Epub 2013 Nov 26. Modifying a shrug exercise can facilitate the upward rotator muscles of the scapula. Pizzari T1, Wickham J2, Balster S3, Ganderton C4, Watson L5.
 Clin Biomech (Bristol, Avon). 1994 Jan;9(1):44-50. doi: 10.1016/0268-0033(94)90057-4. Anatomy and actions of the trapezius muscle. Johnson G1, Bogduk N, Nowitzke A, House D.