How can I reduce knots in my shoulders (trapezius muscles)?

From a reader:

How can I reduce knots in my shoulders (trapezius muscles)? I work at a computer most of the day, and have tight knots in my shoulders; specifically, in my trapezius muscles. How can I reduce the tension in these muscles, without having someone else massage them? Are there self-massage techniques I can use? What are appropriate stretches?


My answer:

EVERYBODY gets tension (and sometimes, pain) in the neck and shoulders as well as in between the shoulder blades. This has, of course, increased in these times when we’re all looking down and hunching up at our phones and laptops. Here’s how to get rid of it. Based on the reader’s questions, I’ve broken up my answer into 3 sections below.


How do I reduce tension in these muscles?

This is the most important question. You could have the best therapist to resolve the tension for a time, but if you continue to do the actions that result in the tension and pain, they will just keep coming back and probably keep getting worse.

The most common problem that exacerbates tension and pain in the neck and shoulders is holding the neck in an unnatural position. The two most common are looking down for extended periods and craning the neck and head forward (most probably to focus on miniscule print on a device such as a smartphone or laptop). The answer is to figure out how to keep the head as upright and without rotation as possible, while you relax your shoulders and arms at your sides.

The trapezius itself is, ironically, not the most common cause of neck/shoulder pain in the curve of the shoulder (the levator scapula is). However, TrP1 (Trigger Point 1) at the curve of the neck/shoulder is one of the myofascial TrPs observed the most often [1]:

Trigger Point 1

There are about seven common trigger points located in the upper, middle and lower portions of the trapezius muscle:

Trigger points located in the trapezius muscle

Point 7 (x) produces pilomtor activity or “gooseflesh” to the upper extremity [2]

Trapezius trigger point 7

“In study of static loading, Bearns (1961) discovered that the upper fibers of trapezius, contrary to universal teaching, ‘play no active part in the support of the shoulder girdle in the relaxed upright posture.” [3]


Are there self-massage techniques I can use?


FIRST, you must have been assured by a proper diagnostician (MD/DO) that there are no problems (such as a herniated disc, bone spurs, etc.) that will constantly madden the nerves that feed the musculature of the neck and shoulder. If there is such an inflammatory component, anything I write here will be transitory because the true cause has not been addressed. My suggestions below can temporarily interrupt the pain signal, which has benefit, but ALL pieces of the problem must be addressed to have lasting comfort.

First, it is very helpful to heat the area first. This will dilate blood and lymph vessels, bringing an influx of fresh blood into the area. It will also soften the connective tissue (fascia) that surrounds and binds the muscle fibers and heads, which will make the whole area more amenable to stretching. This step also prepares the tissue for massage (flushing) of the inflammatory chemicals that are making it hurt.

You can use a couple Swedish massage techniques to soften and relax the tissue. These are friction (rubbing along the fiber) and kneading (like with bread dough). For more information, see my blog entry What is the difference between kneading, rolling, percussion, and vibration?

For trigger point deactivation, you can use point-compression with fingertip(s) or a pressure tool (such as a backnobber or theracane):

Using a backnobber

You can also use a tennis or pinky ball against a wall, but they are notoriously difficult to use on the curve of the shoulder. I’ve found the backnobber to be the most useful. It’s only $30, and the product and subsequent comfort can last the rest of your life (no affiliation, just a big, big fan of one of the coolest designs EVER!) [4]

Here’s what you do:

  1. Find the trigger point (any “x” in the above diagrams) that produces the pain pattern that you have, or alternately find a knot in a band of muscle in the curve of the neck/shoulder.

  2. Heat first!

  3. Apply pressure with a fingertip or tool, just enough to “feel it,” and HOLD for 15-60 seconds, until it feels like it is “dissolving/softening,” or until it feels “done.”

  4. Apply the same technique to adjacent and associated trigger points

  5. At this point, you MUST take the muscles released through their normal resting range of motion!


What are appropriate stretches?

This is a tricky one for the neck and shoulder, which have an astonishing array of motion capabilities.

PLEASE NOTE: The exercises below will NOT help and will probably be painful and/or harmful if the tissue is not softened first. Before doing any of the below stretches, follow steps 1 and 2 above. Take it slow and EASY, and remember to breathe. Do NOT make it hurt, just stop at the first point of stretch and relax into it.

Stretches that are most helpful for neck/shoulder pain are as follows:

Stretches helpful for neck and shoulder pain (points 4-7)

(points 4-7)

Stretches helpful for neck and shoulder pain (points 5-7)

(points 5-7)

Stretches helpful for neck and shoulder pain

If you follow the steps above, you should get immediate, long-lasting relief from neck/shoulder pain from computer use. If you do not, it’s time to see a pain-management doctor. Don’t wait. The longer these muscles go on in an inflamed, irritated, shortened state, the longer it takes to deactivate and rehabilitate them.

Ultimately, the triggers must be eliminated, the tissue must be softened/relaxed/deactivated, and then it must be strengthened within its current capability.

[1] Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction; the Trigger Point Manual, Travell and Simons, pg.184

[2] Ibid., pg.186

[3] Muscles Alive; Their Functions Revealed by Electromyography, John V. Basmajian, Carlo J. DeLuca, pg.266

[4] The Pressure Positive Company

What does scapular retraction do?

Scapular retraction is movement of the scapula (shoulder blade) backwards and inwards towards the spine. It is mainly produced by the rhomboids (M/m) and medial / lower trapezius in this isolated movement:

Movements of the upper limbMovements of the Upper Limb

Keeping these muscles toned is important in order to support functionally healthy placement of the scapula in static postures and to have good shoulder girdle strength. This strength is balanced with those muscles that pull the scapula forward, which can be overly tight and weak with extended slouching.

A simple isolation exercise to strengthen these muscles of scapular retraction involves squeezing the muscles backwards against resistance. Such resistance can be accomplished by using simple arm weights, or by using an added weight or resistance device, such as free weights (or even a soup can), strengthening bands, pulleys, etc.

"Such resistance can be accomplished by using simple arm weights, or by using an added weight or resistance device, such as free weights (or even a soup can), strengthening bands, pulleys, etc."

Any of these variations of this exercise will be more effective in isolating these muscles if you bend your torso forward 90′, which prevents primary loading of supporting muscles.

Here’s a video which shows such an exercise (credit: WellCor):


If you have ANY neck problems or discomfort, support the head with a towel and relax it (do NOT lift up head or tuck the neck). Remember to breathe in a relaxed manner during the exercise: breathe IN through the nose during the contraction, then EXHALE through the mouth when you relax the contraction.

If you experience any discomfort during or following the exercise, alert your therapist or doctor immediately.  Good luck!


Why do we get knots in our back muscles, but not in other areas (e.g. arms or legs)?

Why do we get knots in our back muscles, but not in other areas (e.g. arms or legs)?

“Muscle knots,” otherwise known as trigger points, can occur in any muscle of the body when that muscle is used improperly or damaged. With repeated misuse or damage, the affected sarcomeres (contracting fibers) can “lock” into immobility and inflammation of varying levels. Online research of any skeletal muscle of the body reveals images of trigger point pain patterns for that muscle. (Various muscles associated with locations of pain throughout the body are shown here too: National Association of Myofascial Trigger Point Therapists | Symptom Checker)

Current wisdom on this subject is as follows: “The presence of CGRP (calcitonin gene-related peptide) drives the system to become chronic, potentiating the motor endplate response and potentiating, with SubstanceP, activation of muscle nociceptors. The combination of acidic myofascial pH and proinflammatory mediators at the active trigger point contributes to segmental spread of nociceptive input into the dorsal horn of the spinal cord and leads to the activation of multiple receptive fields. Neuroplastic changes in dorsal horn neurons occur in response to constant nociceptive barrage, causing further activation of neighboring and regional dorsal horn neurons that now have lowered thresholds. This results in the observed phenomena of hypersensitivity, allodynia, and referred pain that is characteristic of the active myofascial trigger point.” 1

To put it in simpler clinical terms, an active trigger point that is referring pain will activate (as a result of tissue metabolism and biochemistry altering the nociceptive threshold) associated soft tissue and neural regions through neuroplasticity.

1. An expansion of Simons’ integrated hypothesis of trigger point formation (pg. 474, 1st P.)