Scalenes- Muscle of the Month By: Dr. Casey Swann
Scalenes: A very important muscle in your neck and chest. The scalene muscles are a pair of muscles located in the front of your neck on either side down to your first two ribs. Each side is divided into three separate sections that each do slightly different actions.
The anterior and middle scalenes bend the head to the side, flexes the neck forward, and lifts the first rib. The posterior scalene does the same actions except it attaches to the second rib. All three divisions will help you breathe when you need them.
It is good to know how to stretch and loosen your scalenes for a few reasons. Those reasons are called the brachial plexus, the subclavian artery, and breathing.
The brachial plexus is a network of nerves that control your entire arm. The nerves originate from the spine and pass between the anterior and middle scalenes on their way down your arm. Tight scalenes can restrict the movement or impulses down these nerves leading to numbness, tingling, and loss of motor control.
The subclavian artery is the blood vessel that brings blood to the entire arm. The subclavian artery also passes between the middle and anterior scalenes and can be restricted as well. Cold or loss of feeling in the fingers when the arm is raised overhead may mean your scalenes are cutting off the circulation to your arms.
The scalenes can also become tight from stress. When we become stressed, we stop breathing from our bellies like we did as babies or when we sleep. Our chest tightens and our ribs stop moving down and out. The scalenes come to the rescue by helping lift our ribs to get more air in our lungs. By doing this chronically, our scalenes become tight and keep our chest lifted permanently leading to a tight, uncomfortable neck and chest.
Take a moment to notice your breathing now. Put one hand on your chest just below your collarbone and the other hand on your belly. Now take a deep breath. How much of that movement in your ribcage came from your chest? How much from your belly? 80% of your movement should have come from your belly and 20% from your upper chest. Did you notice how far up your shoulders went? If you don’t have lungs in your shoulders, why are you using them to breathe?
Another way the scalenes can become tight is from bad posture. Of course, we all assume our posture can be better, and this is probably true. Slumping at our desks or computers will cause upper cross syndrome (shoulders rolled forward, forward head carriage, tight and weak upper back, tight and weak chest). When the scalenes are tight, they flex the head forward, and this is hard on the neck. Just like when you hold a heavy object in your hands, holding that object closer to the body is easier that holding it far away from the body. You head becomes much heavier – about 30 lbs heavier (see image below). Imagine what that does to your spine? This can lead to degeneration in your vertebrae and arthritis in your neck. When the head slips forward, it also changes the orientation of your jaw and can cause headaches, TMJ issues, and neck pain.
Stretching the scalenes is relatively easy. Start by sitting in a chair. Put your right hand under your bottom and sit on it. This pins the shoulder down so that your neck can stretch without raising the shoulder. Tilt your head directly to the left bringing your left ear towards your left shoulder. If you don’t feel much of a stretch, bring your left hand up to LIGHTLY pull your head down towards the left more. Hold for 10 breaths. Repeat this stretch tilting the head slightly in front of and behind the shoulder as well. This stretch can also be done lying down. See picture below.
Other ways to relax your scalenes include Active Release Technique, massage, acupuncture, postural changes, physical therapy, and heat.
Be sure to visit Performance Sports and Wellness for a full evaluation on your neck and to ask any questions you may have.
Don’t have any neck pain to complain of? Great! Send this article to someone you know who does.
Dr. Casey Swann graduated from Southern California University of Health Sciences with her Doctorate of Chiropractic in spring 2012. She is full body certified in Active Release Technique and holds certifications in Graston Technique, Cox Technique and Kinesiotaping. She practices at Performance Sports and Wellness with Dr. David Ness in New Paltz & Poughkeepsie.
Picture 1 – Gray’s Anatomy
Picture 2 – Adam, Inc.
Picture 3 (figure 1) – erikdalton.com
Picture 4 – Travel and Simons’ Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction: The Trigger Point Manual