Stretches & Exercises for the Sternocleidomastoid Muscle

Tight sternocleidomastoid muscles can cause neck pain.
i Polka Dot Images/Polka Dot/Getty Images

The sternocleidomastoid, or SCM, are muscles that originate at the inside of your collarbones and extend to the top of your neck, behind your ears. The muscles form a “V” shape in the front of your body and are visible with head turning. These muscles cause your neck to move side to side by flexing, and are the muscles used when you stretch your neck upward.


If a baby’s SCM is too tight on one side, the baby’s head will turn to one side and the baby will have difficulty turning her neck. This condition is called torticollis. If your infant’s doctor diagnosis this condition, the doctor will recommend neck stretching exercises that will loosen the tight side of your child’s neck and strengthen the weaker SCM. The exercises are usually done for about six weeks, with further exercises depending on the outcome. The doctor may recommend physical therapy. Most cases get better with stretching, but extreme instances may require MRI scans to determine if muscle-release surgery is indicated. This surgery is usually done after a child is at least 6 years old.


For adults, stretching the SCM can help with the head being chronically tilted forward or with a feeling of a stiff neck. To stretch these muscles, keep your back straight and shoulders lowered, and raise your head to look up and to the left. Continue breathing deeply throughout the exercise to keep oxygen flowing to your muscle bodies. Hold this position for 20 to 30 seconds, then repeat on the left side. Perform the exercise twice on each side.


In yoga, stretching and twisting are integral exercises. Yoga contends that when you stretch muscles – such as turning your head to the side to exercise your SCM muscle – blood is pushed out of the muscle. When you release and return to your natural position, blood flows back into the SCM, replenishing the area with fresh oxygen, which carries nutrients that strengthen the SCM muscles.


People with other chronic medical conditions should talk to their doctors before beginning neck stretching exercises. Since the neck is the most mobile part of the spine, be careful not to overextend it during a stretching exercise. Twist and stretch slowly and gently. If your SCM muscle tightness causes dizziness, facial pain, runny nose or watery eyes, talk to your health care provider. Sternocleidomastoid syndrome also has a variety of other treatments that should be used under medical supervision.

the nest