Tight traps and trapezius pain are becoming increasingly common conditions, especially among people in desk jobs who spend hours every day hunched over a computer keyboard. Fortunately, you can treat and prevent these frustrating conditions by including a few simple exercises in your daily routine.
In this guide, we provide you with all the information you need to understand and treat your trapezius pain, including a number of easy exercises.
It feels like a constant weight on your shoulders. The tension in your neck and upper back never seems to go away. You sometimes get headaches from the neck tightness. Sounds familiar?
You could be suffering from tight traps and trapezius pain, which can be frustrating conditions. However, with the right exercises, you can manage and reduce the pain. This Injurymap guide gives you the information you need for treating and preventing trapezius pain. Remember to always see a medical professional if your symptoms are severe or persistent.
Treat your trapezius pain with the proper exercises. Try the Injurymap exercise app now.
What is the trapezius? What does it do?
Causes of trapezius pain
Exercises for trapezius pain relief
Other treatment and relief options for trapezius pain
When to see a doctor
Exercise is the cure for tight traps
The trapezius is a flat, triangular muscle that extends from the back of the head to the neck. It is located very close to the skin. This large, strong muscle has many actions, including the movement of the neck and scapula (shoulder blade). There is a pair of trapezius muscles (commonly called the traps) present in the human body. One trap muscle is located on either side of the cervical spine (neck). Together, they form a diamond-shaped (trapezoid) muscle that covers the upper back, shoulders, and neck.1
The trapezius is important for the stabilization of the shoulder blade. It also participates in many head and neck movements. The trap muscles play an important role in posture. They support the spine and allow you to remain erect while standing.1 The trapezius muscle is divided into three parts – the upper, middle, and lower. Each part does something different.
Commmon movements where the trapezius is used
- Shrugging your shoulders
- Turning your head
- Side bending your neck
- Extending your neck backwards
- Throwing an object2,3
Modern-day inactive lifestyles are making trapezius pain more common. Nowadays, it is not unusual for someone to spend long hours at their desk in front of a computer. The seating posture keeps the trapezius continuously activated for large parts of the day. Constant use of the trapezius muscle increases the risk of developing spasm and pain. The term “tight traps” refers to spasm and pain in the trapezius muscles. Tight traps can cause significant reduction in head and neck movement.2
The traps are also prone to develop trigger points (specific spots in the muscle that become irritated and painful).2 Furthermore, whiplash injuries can also affect the trapezius.1
Pain in the trapezius muscles can be referred to other areas. This means the pain is felt in a part of the body other than the trapezius. For example, trapezius pain can lead to sinus discomfort.1 Trapezius spasms can cause tension headaches on both sides of the head, including the forehead region.3
Fortunately, the trapezius muscle responds well to exercise. There are several exercises for the trapezius that can keep it working properly without pain.
The trapezius is divided into three functional parts. The upper trapezius is used to elevate the shoulder and rotate and tilt the neck. The middle trapezius moves the shoulder blade back and stabilizes it. The lower trapezius is involved in moving the shoulder blade down.4
Trapezius pain can occur for many reasons. You will often find that it is accompanied by other symptoms such as muscle stiffness, tightness, and spasms (involuntary twitches). You may also feel a numbness or tingling in the arms on one or both sides. The symptoms can result in a reduced range of motion in the neck and shoulders.
Typically, the upper part of the trapezius is involved with spasm and pain. Some of the most common causes of trapezius pain are listed below.4
Repetitive activities, such as lifting heavy objects or swimming can lead to trapezius pain. People who perform monotonous work with the neck and shoulder muscles are at high risk of trapezius pain . Examples include nurses who lift and turn patients, construction workers who carry heavy objects, and retail workers who lift heavy boxes and bags.5
2. Poor posture
Sitting hunched over a desk or computer keyboard can cause your trapezius muscles to tighten. People with constrained work postures are also at risk of developing trapezius symptoms. Examples include coal miners and baggage handlers who work in confined spaces, such as the baggage compartment of commercial airplanes.
3. Mental stress
Psychological stress can lead to long lasting muscle tension in the neck and shoulders, causing symptoms like trapezius pain. Studies have shown that mental stressors can increase the activity of the trapezius muscle.6 This increase in muscle activity increases the risk of trapezius muscle pain.
A violent twist or collision that places excessive force on the upper back can lead to a trapezius muscle tear and pain. The muscle can get injured during contact sports, weightlifting, car collisions, and hard falls. The symptoms are usually felt immediately. The severity of the pain depends on the severity of the injury.7
Stretching and strengthening exercises are the key to avoiding trapezius pain. It is a good idea to do a few stretches when you get out of bed in the morning, before beginning your workout, and before lifting heavy objects. If you have a desk job or work posture that places stress on the neck and shoulders, take periodic breaks and perform some exercises to loosen up the trapezius muscles. Here are some examples of exercises that can help you keep your trapezius muscle healthy.
Forward neck stretch
Exercise is the best way to treat your trapezius pain. However, there are other treatment options that can be added, including:4
Pain medication: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs or n-seds) like acetaminophen / paracetamol and ibuprofen can help decrease trapezius pain.
Ice and heat application: Hot and cold therapy can reduce trapezius discomfort by controlling inflammation and pain.
Dry needling: This technique involves inserting thin needles into the skin. It is used to treat trigger point pain in the trapezius region.
Taping: Elastic tape is placed over the painful trapezius area to relieve pressure on the muscle.
Ergonomics: Does your occupation require you to sit for long hours at a computer workstation? An ergonomic evaluation may help with your trapezius pain. For example, a workstation with forearm support can help you maintain a neutral and relaxed shoulder posture, which will reduce the activation of your trapezius muscle.
In the majority of people, trapezius pain can be successfully treated with stretching, strengthening exercises, and short-term use of pain medicines and ice/heat application. But it’s important that you seek professional medical care if your trapezius pain is severe and does not improve with home treatments. You should see a doctor for trapezius pain if:4
- The pain is severe (for example, if it keeps you up at night).
- You are unable to move your neck and shoulder.
- The pain has been present for more than 7-10 days.
- There are signs of infection, such as fever and redness of the skin in the trapezius area.
- There is a visible deformity, such as one shoulder is lower than the other at rest.
Like all muscles, the trapezius is prone to overuse and injury. The cause can vary. Maybe you’ve been swimming regularly. Maybe you just started working out and put excessive stress on your shoulders and neck. You might have carried a heavy object. Or, perhaps your job requires you to sit in one position for a long time. Any of these scenarios can lead to tightness and pain in the trapezius muscles.
First, know that you are not alone. About 1 in 5 adults have ongoing pain in the neck and shoulders. Longstanding trapezius pain is somewhat more common in women compared to men.8
Fortunately, you don’t have to live with these symptoms. Physical activity and exercises are proven to be effective for both acute and chronic trapezius myalgia (short-term and ongoing trapezius pain). There are specific strengthening exercises that can significantly reduce trapezius pain. By following a regular exercise program, you can prevent further trapezius pain from occurring.
The Injurymap app has many stretches and strengthening exercises for the trapezius specifically and the neck and shoulders in general. Include these exercises in your regular workout routine. This will help reduce trapezius pain and strengthen the muscle to prevent future injuries.
Try the Injurymap exercise app now. It’s free for the first 14 days.
You’ll have a chance to see the correct posture and technique for each exercise. And you’ll find it’s incredibly convenient to do the exercises at home.