Trapezius pain is a common problem linked with neck, shoulder and upper back tension, tightness and stiffness.
The trapezius muscle is a large, broad, flat muscle that covers much of the upper back.
Trapezius plays a vital role in posture, shoulder blade movement and control as well as neck and shoulder movements.
Poor posture is a common cause of trapezius muscle pain. People who spend long periods hunched over their computer or smart phone are prone to developing chronically tight trapezius muscles which can lead to neck, shoulder and upper back pain.
We are also very prone to storing tension and stress in the upper traps which leads to tightness, muscle strain and trapezius pain.
But there are lots of effective options for trapezius muscle pain treatment. In this article on trapezius pain we will cover:
The trapezius muscle is a huge, triangular shaped muscle that covers a large portion of the neck, upper and middle back. When viewed together, the two trapezius muscles look trapezoid-shaped, hence the name! Trapezius is superficial, just underneath the skin, so it is easy to feel.
The trapezius muscle originates from the base of the skull, down the neck through the ligamentum nuchae and from the spinous processes of the thoracic spine. The muscle extends out the whole width of the shoulder attaching to the clavicle, acromion and spine of scapula - a ridge on the back of the shoulder blade.
There are three distinct sections of trapezius:
The primary function of trapezius is to stabilise and move the scapula and it plays a vital role in posture, holding the spine upright and supporting the weight of the head and arm.
Other important functions of trapezius include:
Trapezius pain may be caused by:
Overactive or tight traps are the most common cause of trapezius pain and typically causes tension and soreness across the back of the shoulders. There may be a burning pain in the trapezius muscle or a deep, dull aching sensation. A tight trapezius can also limit neck and shoulder movements and affect how the shoulder blade moves.
There are lots of different options when treating trapezius muscle pain:
Heat is a great place to start with trapezius pain treatment. Place a hot water bottle, hot wheat bag or heat pad over the painful area for 10-15 minutes. This helps to relax the muscle and ease out any tension, reducing trapezius pain. It can be really helpful to apply heat before other treatments to increase their effectiveness.
One of the best ways to reduce neck and upper back and trapezius pain is to do exercises.
The best trapezius exercises combine stretching and strengthening for the neck and upper back for a full trapezius workout:
Massage is a great way to relieve trapezius muscle pain, spasm and tension.
You can do self-massage by kneading down each side of your neck/shoulders with your opposite hand. Apply pressure through your finger tips or your knuckles in a circular motion, slowly working your way down the side of your neck and across the back of your shoulders, working your way along the upper trapezius fibres.
Apply enough pressure that you can feel it, but not so much that it hurts. Alternatively, you can get someone else to help, see a sports therapist or use a massage gun.
Upper and middle trapezius trigger points are a common cause of trapezius pain. If you have hypersensitive trapezius trigger points, rather than massaging/kneading over the area it is more effective to place sustained, graded pressure directly through the trigger point to release trapezius pain.
Press directly down through the trigger point with your thumb or knuckle and gradually increase the amount of pressure through the knotted trapezius muscle. Hold for approximately one minute. You should start the feel the trapezius knot release as the trigger point relaxes.
Some trigger points can be stubborn and take a few sessions to release. If you can’t get rid of your trapezius trigger point yourself, you might want to see a sports therapist.
A great way to reduce trapezius pain from muscle tightness, muscle spasm or trapezius trigger points is to use a ball to massage over the area.
Stand with your back to the wall and place a ball e.g. massage, lacrosse, baseball, racquetball - whatever you have, over the area where you get your trapezius pain and lean into the ball.
For chronically tight trapezius, with bend and straighten your legs, or raise and lower your arms to move the ball and stretch through the trapezius muscle. You can change the position of the ball to target different areas of trapezius muscle pain.
This is just a simple starter to get you going, there are lots of different variations for ball massage with trapezius pain to target different areas of tightness and spasming in different positions - see the trapezius stretches article for loads more great ideas.
Carrying heavy bags can put a lot of strain on your trapezius muscles, particularly carrying a bag on just one shoulder. Try to
Sleeping on your stomach is the worst position for neck and trapezius pain as you end up with your head twisted right round to one side which puts a lot of strain on your trapezius muscle.
Instead, try sleeping on your side so that there’s no tension through your traps. One pillow under your head should be enough – you want your head level with your spine rather than lifted up. You may also want to have a pillow between your legs and one behind you to stop you from rolling over in your sleep.
And make sure you’ve got a supportive mattress.
One of the biggest causes of trapezius pain is spending lots of time hunched over where tensions creeps in to the trapezius muscles without us even realising it. If you are sitting down for long periods, set a timer so that every 30 minutes you get up and have a move around, even if it’s just for a couple of minutes. You’ll be amazed what a difference it can make.
And make sure you are keeping active doing some form of exercise for 30 minutes, five times a week. Pick something you enjoy as you are much more likely to stick with it!
Poor posture is one of the biggest causes of trapezius pain as well as back, neck and shoulder problems, so it is definitely worth spending some time working on improving your posture. Having poor posture often leads to:
As a physio and pilates instructor I've helped hundreds of people to improve their posture. Whether you are standing still for long periods or walking around, good posture is really important so here are my top tips:
This isn’t an overnight solution, it will take time to make this your new normal posture, but it makes such a big difference, not just to the trapezius pain you have right now, but long term as well.
Trapezius pain is so often linked with poor posture when sitting - you know what it's like, you start with great intentions but soon end up slouched down!
There are some really simple changes you can make to your desk set up that will help to reduce trapezius pain. These will give you a good sitting posture and will help reduce the tension in your neck, shoulders and upper back:
Setting up your desk correctly will not only help reduce trapezius pain, but reduces your risk of developing all the other problems associated with poor posture that we looked at earlier.
It may take a few weeks for trapezius muscle pain to settle down, particularly if you have a super tight trapezius, muscle spasms or trigger points in your traps, but stick with it.
If your pain in trapezius is accompanied by any tingling or numbness in your arms or hands, or your trapezius pain persists or is affecting your function, see your doctor or a physical therapist.
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Page Last Updated: 31/03/2022
Next Review Due: 31/03/2024