A long day of work at the computer or playing a few hours of tennis could cause a dull, achy pain in your neck and shoulders. Chances are your condition is caused by trigger points in your anterior and middle scalene muscles, which attach from the sides of the lower five neck vertebrae to the first rib above your collarbone. Investing a few minutes of stretching several times a day can make your neck and upper back appear more slender and help to improve posture.
The scalene muscles make up part of the triangular muscle structure in the front of your neck. These muscles run deep to the big sternocleidomastoid -- the meaty, V-shape neck muscle that runs laterally along your neck -- and they assist in moving your neck and head up and down and side to side. Because they are attached to the first rib, they assist in elevating your ribcage when you forcefully inhale. The scalenes are also part of a continuous myofascial line that extends from your neck, chest and upper back, over your shoulders and upper arms and into your hands and fingers. When your scalenes get trigger points, which are tiny "knots" in your muscle fibers that are sensitive to touch and resist length change, the pain can manifest almost anywhere along the myofascial line, such as your chest, shoulders and elbows, according registered massage therapist Paul Ingraham.
Static or Dynamic?
Static stretching is holding a muscle stretch for 20 to 30 seconds, which gradually reduces neural stimulation to your muscles and enhances relaxation. While this method can make your scalenes feel like a stretched wad of gum, it may actually decrease your physical and mental performance, according to exercise physiologist Len Kravitz of the University of New Mexico. Therefore, your neck and shoulders may be less responsive to quick movements that are needed in various sports. Dynamic stretching, however, is moving your muscles within their full range of motion repetitively to stimulate neural activity and warm up your muscles and tissues. Depending on what sport or activity you play, there are stretches that combine movements of the scalenes with your back, shoulders and chest that simulate a specific movement pattern to your particular sports skill. For example, a tennis player would dynamically stretch the shoulder and neck by raising the head and arm together to simulate a serve. Save static stretching for the end of the game or workout.
Stretch Them Out
A simple scalene static stretch is to sit or stand with a straight back, then put your left arm behind your lower back. Exhale as you carefully tilt your head to your right and then tilt your chin up slightly until you feel a stretch on the left and front part of your neck. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds, and repeat the stretch on the other side. To make this stretch dynamic, simply assume the same starting position, and move your neck carefully back and forth. Gymnasts, volleyball players, baseball pitchers and kung fu practitioners may need to incorporate movements of the scalenes with their entire body for warm-ups that are more specific to their particular skills.
Massage therapy is a huge stress reliever for your scalenes and allows for more movement in the area. Massaging the scalenes directly is only recommended for professionals. This is because they are close to the brachial plexus, which could make you tingle with pain if it's touched. Gentle stroking of the back of the neck can actually relax your scalenes by using the "mother cat" technique, according to MassageTherapy.com. This involves wrapping your hand around the back of your neck while you're in a supine position, and gently squeezing your neck with your fingers and the fleshy part of your palm below your thumb.
Nick Ng has been writing fitness articles since 2003, focusing on injury prevention and exercise strategies. He has covered health for "MiaBella" magazine. Ng received his Bachelor of Arts in communications from San Diego State University in 2001 and has been a certified fitness coach with the National Academy of Sports Medicine since 2002.