The SCM: Neck Pains Dirty Little Secret

Neck pain is like Netflix, we all have it, and we spend way too much time thinking about it (Stranger things, I’m looking at you).

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At least 80% of the patients who walk in to my clinic come in with neck and shoulder pain, the majority of whom work in office jobs where they adopt the distinctly Igor-ian posture of hunched, cramped upper body, weak and overstretched back muscles, shortened and closed front body, and just a general clusterfuck of jammed and unhappy ligaments, muscles and bones in the neck.

A common issue many people with neck pain have is the profound level of re-occurrence experienced. Many have tried a myriad of treatments and modalities, spent money on gadgets, and made lifestyle changes to remedy the pain. Yet, the pain returns. This leads to bafflement and frustration. “I’ve changed my desk to an ergonomic set up, I go to yoga 3 times a week, I get massages and acupuncture and still, it comes back!” is something I hear pretty often. 

The frustration is understandable. But what if I told you that the neck pain, foggy brain and headaches all share a common culprit?

 

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Enter the Sternocleidomastoid (or SCM for short). This muscle runs from the clavicle to the mastoid process (hence the name). Its main responsibilities are rotation and flexion of the neck. It is also a muscle recruited  in the ‘head forward’ position which is ubiquitous in those who work in front of computers.

The attachment sites at the head and neck mean that the SCM can influence  the chest, the jaw, eyes, ears and greater neck area (especially the subocciputal region). The SCM can cause misalignment of the neck, tugging the head forward and causing subocciputal neck pain and create or worsen jaw pain (they tend to have a whole feed back loop with each other in terms of tension). This leads to chronic neck pain and jaw tension, both of which often lead to tension headaches.

The chronic forward head motion typical with computer work creates shortened SCM’s, but because of the structure of the SCM, it is rarely a site of noticeable pain. How many people do you know who rub their neck and say ‘Ugh, my SCM is killing me!’ No one, because most people are not even aware this muscle exists. Remember, it is the victim who screams, not the culprit. Often it is areas or muscular systems which do not cause any pain at all which are the real cause of pain in other areas. Because of its low profile, the SCM is rarely treated.

 

So, what are the benefits of releasing the SCM?

 

  • Fewer Headaches. Releasing this muscle will allow your neck to return to a more neutral position and take the strain off of other neck muscles which must fight against it to keep the head in place, thus reducing strain and tension.
  • Better attention and memory retention. First, pain sucks and when you are in it all the time, it’s hard to concentrate. Second, tight muscles are almost always linked to reduced blood flow. Tight muscles can inhibit arterial blood flow and lack of movement and elasticity in muscles has a negative effect on venous return, meaning that less oxygenated blood is getting to the muscles and organs in the neck and head, and waste products from these areas are slower to return to the lungs and liver. Better blood flow means more oxygen and nutrients are reaching these areas, which means that they are able to perform at a more optimal level.

 

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  • Cosmetic advantages. Your neck will look longer, and your skin will look healthier. It’s simple; by bringing tone and length back to this muscle, your neck will appear longer, and the area will look more toned. As for skin, well, skin which is getting optimal blood flow is happy, nourished skin!

So, what is the best way to release the SCM? The best way to help this muscle get healthy is by treating it yourself every day!

 

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To find your SCM, first turn your head to one side. You will see a thick rope of muscle which comes out from behind your ear and travels down to the collar bone. Simply find the area which is most prominent (on most people the tendon which attaches to the collar bone sticks out the most) and work your way up and down the muscle by pinching it between your thumb and index finger.

 The SCM has muscle fibers which are diagonal near the mastoid process and vertical near the clavicle, so depending on how your body has been holding tension, it may feel way more tender toward one end of the muscle compared to the other.

Be sure to only massage ONE SIDE AT A TIME, as doing both at once may make you feel dizzy. Try to do this a few times a day for a about a minute each side. You will LOVE the difference it makes!

 

Jill Miller, who is a personal favourite of mine, also does an amazing video on youtube about how to roll out your SCM with therapy balls, which you can check out here.