Upper Trap Awareness ~ Part 2

How often do you complain or hear others complain of “knots” or “tightness” in the upper traps? An overactive upper-trapezius can happen when we consistently engage that muscle group, even at a low intensity. Because repetitive motions do not allow the affected tissue to rest between movements, overactivity can cause stress and irritation. If you read our last blog post, “Upper Trap Overuse Awareness Month”, you’ll recall the complexity of the trapezius and its function.

posture positionsA large contributor to most people’s overactivity is the combination of poor posture and today’s sedentary workforce. With desk and computer work, leaning forward and hunching over the keyboard is very common. Simple, everyday movements—like habitually holding a telephone between the ear and shoulder—can cause stress and trigger upper trapezius pain.

Carl Gustafson, RPT, CSCS, a licensed athletic trainer with more than 20 years’ experience in sports medicine and conditioning, explains that no matter what shape someone is in, muscles that are in a stagnant position all day can go into spasm. Spasms don’t necessarily occur just because a muscle is too tight or too weak; they can also occur simply from lack of movement. The lack of movement, spasms, and weakness in this area can lead to stress injuries. A primary tool for preventing or treating stress injuries is exercise. [1]

Of course, we cannot reverse the harmful effects of a sedentary job by spending 1 or 2 hours at the gym after sitting for 8–10 hours with little or no movement. However, we can greatly change our ailments when we change our behavior outside of the gym. Focus on proper posture and ergonomics in all our daily activities. For example, we know that when lifting, there is an optimal joint angle that provides the greatest mechanical advantage when trying to get the bar to its finishing position.  We can apply this same principle when we are lifting things that are not barbells. If you are holding a gallon of milk in your hand with your elbow extended and arm in abduction, there is an optimal angle at which to bend your elbow. Your biceps muscle is most effective at carrying the milk with a shorter-lever arm. If your elbow remains extended (and the biceps is lengthened), it is difficult to hold the gallon container. This muscle “lengthening” causes what is called passive insufficiency. The opposite situation, when the muscles are shortened beyond their optimal length, is called active insufficiency. [2]

It is easy to understand how the upper trapezius could be in a state of active insufficiency in certain situations. If the shoulder is elevated and the neck is extended, side-bent and rotated, as when you are cradling a phone between your ear and shoulder this is an example of active insufficiency. Throughout the day, the upper trapezius might be actively insufficient, while, alternatively, the rhomboids might be passively insufficient (when the shoulders are rounded). Developing better posture and moving out of these positions intermittently throughout the workday will place the muscles back at their optimal length while promoting blood flow and oxygen to them.

So let’s start with your posture. Often when dealing with pain or weakness we attack the joint and associated muscles without attempting to understand the causes that led the muscles and soft tissue to get tweaked in the first place. You engage in poor alignment everyday if you don’t have a solid posture.

Here are some proper postural alignment cues that can help you stay conscious and connected to your body alignment throughout the day.

  1. Stand up and flex your glutes. This should help tilt your pelvis posteriorly.
  2. Now flex your abs just a bit, only enough to maintain the pelvic position so you can relax your glutes.
  3. Now stand up tall as if a string was pulling the top of your head to the ceiling. Twist your thumbs all the way out so they almost point behind you while pulling your shoulder blades back a bit.
  4. Now relax your arms and try to maintain that shoulder position by using only the muscles in your upper back.

For most of us this sequence will get us within 90% of what your postural alignment should be. Some of us may need further stretching and corrective exercises to help achieve the right positions, but I do believe the best fix for posture is forcing yourself to maintain it. One of the issues with teaching correct posture is that posture, strictly speaking, should be reflexive. In other words, you shouldn’t have to think to achieve good posture. That being said, like with other movement patterns, the only way to get to that point is by practicing good posture over and over until it happens naturally. This is the basis of motor patterning. Stay tuned for some awesome stretching and corrective exercises that will help you maintain that good trap position.

References:

[1] Anderson, B. 1997. Stretching at Your Computer or Desk. Bolinas, CA: Shelter Publications Inc.; IDEA Fitness Journal , Volume 3, Issue 4, 2006 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. http://www.ideafit.com/files/_archive/042006_repetitive.pdf

[2] The Upper Traps, over assessed, over blamed & very misunderstood! The Sports Physio / April 9, 2013. https://thesportsphysio.wordpress.com/2013/04/09/the-upper-trapezius-over-looked-over-blamed-misunderstood/

[3] 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.

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