little known muscle series – sternocleidomastoid

This is a great muscle that I’m so excited to acquaint you with!

First the anatomy mapquest: Go to the mirror. Put your hand to your forehead. Press your forehead against your hand, providing resistance with your hand. Do you see 2 muscles pop out on the sides of your neck? They run from behind the ear to the collarbone, forming a “V.”

These are your sternocleidomastoids, or SCM’s for short. Nice to meet ‘cha. No, el placer es mio. Fantastic muscles, really. Let’s take a closer look at what they do and how they help or sometimes hinder us.

Our SCM’s bend our necks to the side and rotate our heads. When working together they can also flex the neck and lift the sternum (breastbone) when you take a deep breath. This post may be a little dry, so activate your SCM’s now by taking a deep breath so you don’t fall asleep. Believe me, these are great muscles to learn about because they are little buggers when overly tight.

Rarely do we think “Gee, the side of my neck feels tight.” When we feel neck pain, it’s usually in the back of the neck, yes? These SCM guys are like magicians who make their pain magically appear elsewhere. The technical name for this is referred pain*. Their typical referral pattern is to throw pain up to the head, sometimes a headache-y feeling above the eye or tenderness and soreness behind the ear at the base of the head. Do those places sound familiar? Let’s explore a bit further. Discomfort when you massage them or an activation of these headache-y feelings I mentioned above likely indicate that these muscles need to be loosened up.

I’m going to lead you through a quick exercise to explore your very own SCM’s. It can feel strange to massage your neck, but your body is great at protecting delicate structures like your windpipe and carotid arteries. If you feel woozy, feel a pulse, or feel an overwhelming “yucky” feeling you should stop and I can walk you through it in person. Kick in your intuitive sense, heed any warnings your body is giving you and you should be fine. I’ve led at least 40 people through this self-exploration without any trouble, so I take some confidence from that experience.

Okay, now that I’ve freaked you out, let’s move on! Tilt your head to the left, take your right hand and reach across to the muscle on the left. It can be helpful to do this at the mirror so you can see the muscle pop out as described above. When you find the muscle try to gently pinch it between your fingers. Think of the motion of turning a key in the ignition. Can you tell if you just have the skin versus the muscle? If not, try gently pinching the muscle while pushing your forehead into your other hand like you did to make the muscle pop out initially. If you have just skin you won’t feel the muscle engage while you pinch it. If you have the muscle you will feel it engage or contract under the fingers that are pinching it. Once you’ve found it, you can progress from a gentle pinching to more firmly massaging it. Try doing this from the attachments at the collarbone and breastbone up towards the ear. It is usually most sore half way up the muscle.

Massaging this muscle regularly will help loosen it up and decrease any pain it’s causing you. When I notice my SCM’s have gotten tight I try to massage them a couple times a day for about a minute each. That’s a reasonable amount. Sometimes when they feel really tight and I remember to massage them they can feel a little extra sore for a day or two while they release some of the chemical “toxins” built up in them. This is normal. If you have massaged them and have any concerns, write me or talk to your doctor. I am not a doctor and am not diagnosing or treating you medically through this post about SCM’s. I’m just sharing with you something I’ve learned about the amazing human body.

One of the reasons I think these muscles get overly tight and cranky is that they are engaged more often than they need to be. I lump them into the category of what I call “concentration muscles.” Have you ever found yourself concentrating on a task like driving, typing or reading blogs on the computer and noticed that your head is way far forward? When we are concentrating on something visually, somehow our body shoots that heavy head forward to “help out.” This causes muscles like the SCM’s to work overtime. And when they work overtime they do not get paid time and a half; they just get cranky. I hope this post helps you learn more about your body, how it functions and how to be more comfortable and relaxed.

I owe a lot of my understanding about these important muscles to my fabulous massage training at the Brian Utting School of Massage, hands-on experience with many clients, my own mischievous SCM’s, and a great book titled The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook by Davies and Davies (New Harbinger Publications, Oakland, CA 2004 pp. 51 – 55).

* Referred pain is in action when men having a heart attack feel pain down the left arm or women feel low back pain during their menstrual cycle.


lazy, I mean, energy-efficient parenting

All parents develop a repertoire of games they can play with their kids where they expend the least amount of energy possible. I’m sure this is linked to our survival as a species. Fact: kids have way too much energy. No, of course they have the right amount of energy and coffee is a poor substitute for us grown-up’s.

My first awareness of these energy-efficient childcare games was “monster on the couch.” Basically the adult sits on the couch, arms extended and waving randomly. Kid(s) run past trying not to get caught by the monster. If you have the fortune of having a house where kids can run out of view and back into view, the monster can slouch into the couch while the kids are out of view. Younger kids can happily play this for about an hour. Every once in a while you have to catch the kids and tickle them to make the rest of the slouching work.

Last year after dropping the kiddo off at kindergarten I had a lovely walk around the Rose Bowl with some other moms. As we chatted and traded fabulous bits of wisdom with each other this topic of energy-efficient parenting came up. Everyone had some version of “monster on the couch.” I added one of my personal favorites “injured hiker.” Ever since we got our earthquake preparedness backpack, my son and I have enjoyed playing injured hiker. I am the injured hiker. I usually pretend to fall off a cliff while hiking and land, where else, on the bed. Sometimes I sneak a pillow under my head. My son grabs the first aid backpack and comes running up the pretend trail or rappelling down the imaginary cliff to deliver first aid to me. I always have a lot of injuries so I have to lay there a looong time! If I happen to doze off, well, that’s a sign of hypothermia or shock…and the pretend search-and-rescue paramedic can learn about how to treat that too! The other moms were in awe of “injured hiker” and thanked me profusely.

Today I came up with a new one. I would be lying if I didn’t admit I’m proud of myself. My son and I like to wrestle and roughhouse. With a very small apartment, we’ve viewed the bed as a play space out of necessity. While this is not good for the mattress, I realized today there are some advantages. When we wrestle I’m usually a Decepticon and he is always an Autobot. There is a lot of falling down (on the soft, cushy bed) involved in wrestling and battling each other. Sometimes I fall dead for a little longer than he does, sometimes sneaking a quick pillow under my head (wink). Today’s brilliant breakthrough was incorporating “stasis” into my wrestling playtime. Statis, as any Transformer knows, is a state of hibernation for robots. Stasis is my new energy-efficient parenting trick.

In fact, I think I feel a little stasis coming on right now.

If you haven’t copyrighted your favorite lazy, I mean, energy-efficient parenting tricks, feel free to share in the comments.

i’m a believer!

I LOVE to receive massage (read with dreamy  intonation). Upon finishing massage school, my friends and I would bemoan not having received a massage in 3 days or more. (I know, poor us…) Boy, those were the days!!

These days I try to receive massage between weekly and monthly. But, as happens to all of us regardless of if it’s massage or another positive habit, sometimes life gets away from us and more time goes by than we intended. The last 2 massages I was scheduled to receive were both canceled at the last minute. Ooh – that’s rough! Like taking a delicious dark chocolate bar out of my mouth before I could take the first bite.

My turn finally came last Friday when my friend Clare Greene gave me an excellent massage.

Oh. my. goodness!

I felt so much happier. I got a very nice natural adjustment in my neck that had been eluding me for a couple of weeks. My low back had been acting cranky and it felt tons better afterward too.

As a massage therapist you may think that I just want YOU to get a massage because it will support my income. Truth be told, I LOVE massage myself and highly recommend it to myself too. Often I think I should be somehow magically exempt from muscle tension. But, in fact, my profession lends itself particularly well to benefiting from massage. For me, the benefits of massage seem so clear:

  • increasing blood flow through muscles that work hard in a repetitive fashion. Any massage therapist I’ve worked on requests extra attention for his or her arms. Our extensor and flexor muscles are working overtime, getting shortened in some cases. Massage moves blood through the muscle tissue. This helps flush out the metabolic waste products from repetitive use and brings fresh, oxygenated blood to the area. This feels so renewing! The shoulder/neck intersection is another area that eats this up.
  • stretching fascia and muscle tissue. As a massage therapist, I bend over a lot. My work is in front of me and my arms and hands are extended. Even with the best posture in the world, I still need to consistently counterbalance the forward aspect of my work with being stretched, especially in the pectorals and traction for the neck. Massage is a great venue for stretching and the massages I enjoy most combine stretching with manual work.
  • reminding me I’m human. When it’s my turn to lay on the table, I feel better before the first stroke has even begun. I feel better knowing that I set aside time to be worked on by someone else. I feel better knowing that there’s a whole hour when I’m not responsible for anyone else. I’m reminded that life is short and consists of more than running here and there, more than the repetitive tasks of feeding, transporting, and laundering for a family. It’s like coming to an oasis in the middle of a desert. I don’t expect every day to be tea and crumpets, but getting massage reminds me that life can be punctuated with joy and feeling good in my body. Massage is just one way to remind me of this.

I could say much more about the benefits of massage and what claims have held up under scientific investigation. This has been more of a personal take on the topic. I’ll save the rest for another post.

And you? What are some of your favorite things about massage?

4 fabulous driving tips

I recently wrote about my (mis-)adventures driving home from a massage training in Arizona. (See Slow down, you move too fast.) Little did you know, dear reader, that I made a concerted effort on my way TO Arizona to drive in an exemplary fashion so that I could share with you some driving tips here. How rude of my car to break down, casting a shadow over such a great topic! Well, here’s what you didn’t know you were waiting for!

Break up the drive – I know we all like to get there as soon as possible, but my best advice for not feeling terrible physically and mood-ily, is to break up a long drive. I suggest taking at least a quick break every 2 hours or so. Our bodies are amazing AND they are built to move, not be stationary. So, especially if you have kids, stop and stretch. Plan it into your travel time. As someone with twitchy legs, I really appreciate the breaks when I can stretch, hop around and find some chocolate or coffee. Breaking up the drive, generally, can keep you more alert too, which translates into safety.

Modify your seat – Mary Bond’s book The New Rules of Posture (Healing Arts Press 2007) has a great treatment on car seat comfort. She purports that car seats are designed for the average person, not for you in all your uniqueness. They have certainly become quite fancy over the years. Ironically the designers’ attempt at comfort can translate into poor posture with a tilt-back angle which makes you jut your head forward, straining your neck and upper back muscles.

As far as comfort for your spine, try some of Ms. Bond’s suggestions:

  • keep the seat back as upright as you can tolerate;
  • press your tailbone as far back into the seat as possible (where the seat bottom meets the back rest);
  • experiment with placing a small bolster behind your back – some people feel supported with the bolster just below the shoulder blades, others like it in the lumbar area (low back). Play around and see what works well for you. You can use a small, flat pillow for a bolster or a rolled-up hand towel. Or you can buy a fancy, expensive one at a store – wink.

Turn off the phonePlease do not call or text while driving. I know in the years to come there will be some very sad stories of completely preventable deaths due to calling and texting while driving. When you have a long drive ahead of you, gather some books on CD and music to enjoy, but leave the cell phone for the fabulous breaks you’ll be taking. Revive the art of conversation, 20 questions and the travel alphabet hunt. There are times to multitask; driving is not one of those times.

Daily commuting: I have to admit that I have never had an arduous daily commute (and I hope to avoid this all my life!). So, take my advice with a grain of salt. But, here goes:

  • Arm yourself with de-stress strategies – daily commutes are stressful, so outsmart the stress with a variety of strategies to keep your stress level low. For some that might be relaxing music, deep breathing or liberally blessing all the other drivers on the road (not with your finger – I mean actually blessing them).
  • Listen to NPR: my favorite non-family companions in the car.
  • Vary your route if possible so that, on occasion, you have a more pleasant looking commute. This might be an interesting side street route that takes more time, but reminds you that there is a world in between work and home that’s worth appreciating.
  • End your commute with a de-stress ritual. Pause 10 seconds for gratitude that you made it safely and your car worked well. Take a deep breath and collect your thoughts for what’s ahead whether that’s work, home life, or your next activity. Pull the rear view mirror into view and give yourself a big smile. You deserve a smile.

Here’s my plug for Mary Bond’s book, The New Rules of Posture. It’s an excellent resource for all sorts of posture-related topics. She weaves together common sense, detailed anatomy and medical research with short exercises you can do to gain awareness of your posture and it’s positive or negative effect on your body. I highly recommend her book to anyone nerdy enough (or in pain enough) to read a book about posture!

Share some of your favorite driving tips. Or funny stories…I know you have some!