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.


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