Trapezius Muscle Pain: My Aching Shoulders!

woman-rubbing-shoulder-for-stress.jpgYour trapezius muscles are some of the first to bother you when you are under stress. They ache and burn from the base of your skull to between your shoulder blades. The good news is that they are relatively easy to massage.

When we are under stress, one of the first muscles to cause us pain is our trap muscles, and part of that reason is because of the nifty role they play in our movement. If you are in pain now, skip to the “How to Massage your Trapezius” section. If you want tips on relieving trapezius muscle pain through better movement and posture, go to Trapezius Exercises.

The trapezius is a broad triangular muscle which attaches to the base of the skull, and lies at the back of the neck, over the upper shoulders and extends down your upper back to your mid back. It is one of the most likely muscles to get sore knots or “trigger points”.

The trap muscles are the only muscles which can lift the outside of your shoulders to create a “shrug”. They move the head and neck toward the shoulder of the other side. The middle of the muscles pull the shoulder blades together, while the lower draw the shoulder blades downward. They support the weight of the arms.

Often these movements are at play when we are under stress, and doing the activities that cause stress.

Where do Trapezius Muscles cause Pain?

 

Back Pain from Trapezius in Neck and Shoulders   Back Pain in Trapezius near Head

Trap pain is classic stress pain. Your shoulders ache, your neck hurts and it is often deep and achy. You may have a headache, especially in the temples or behind your eyes or at the base of your skull. You may feel burning between your shoulder blades after sitting at your computer without elbow support.

What causes Trapezius Muscle Pain?

  • Stress. Stress. Stress. Relax those shoulders!One of the first, primary causes of trapezius strain is carrying your shoulders up near your ears. Remember to relax your shoulders.
  • Head forward posture. Often people, particularly people in the west, people in charge, forward-thinking people, or people who are planning/worrying about the future stand and sit with a head forward position. Remember to sit up straight, lower your shoulders and bring your head back. This relieves strain on the trapezius. You can also try some online yoga to improve your posture.
  • Holding a phone between your ear and shoulder. Get a headset.
  • Carrying a heavy purse or backpack. Ask yourself if everything you have is really necessary. Switch your purse from one shoulder to the next frequently. Carry your important stuff in a fanny pack. And don’t forget to do your stretches.
  • Bra straps that are too tight or the weight of heavy breasts pulling on your straps. Have your bra fit by a person trained to get a good fit. And remember to do your trap stretches.
  • Breastfeeding a baby with your shoulders hunched forward and the weight of the baby in your arms can cause trapezius muscle pain. Check your posture and bring your shoulders back. Do side-lying whenever possible. Support the baby on a pillow on your lap. Remind yourself to take a small break from gazing at your sweetie once in a while, to bring your head up and relax your shoulders.
  • Sleeping on your back or stomach with your head turned to one side. Change your sleeping position (easier said than done).
  • Any position where you head is turned to one side for a long time. Are you a teacher and you turn to look at the student next to you? Do you turn to see your computer screen?
  • Bending forward while working. Do you bend forward to work at a sewing machine or look down at your knitting? Do you bend forward when you type at the computer? Do you do beading? Sit up!
  • Too high keyboard. Get a keyboard shelf for your desk.
  • Working with no arm rests and the weight of your arms hang from your shoulders. Get a chair with arm rests. Put your hands in your pockets if you are standing for a long time. Support your arms to prevent trapezius muscle pain.
  • Whip lash. This just takes recovery time.
  • Playing violin, piano, backpacking, bike riding, or other activities which heavily rely on the trapezius muscles. Remember to stretch. Watch your posture. Take a break when you need your trap muscles to recover.

Trapezius Exercises

You can prevent and relieve pain in your trapezius muscles by exercising them. Exercise brings circulation to the muscles, and it relaxes them. Most importantly, if done correctly exercise will strengthen supporting muscles that support good posture. You can relieve a lot of muscle strain by using many muscles groups in a relaxed with, without overworking your traps.

 

My Yoga Online (affiliate link) is an excellent way to get instruction on using your back correctly. They offer classes in Pilates, Yoga, and Meditation. For more information on how My Yoga Online works, go to Online Yoga Workout with My Yoga Online.

Massaging your Trapezius Muscles

It’s easy to find your trapezius muscles.

 

Finding your trapezius muscle

The top of your trapezius muscle is one of the most common locations for shoulder tension.

This is the most likely place someone will massage you when they give you a neck massage, and it often needs it. It can be tender and sore and have spots which “hurt so good” to be pressed. It is not hard to find knots and ropes in this muscle.

How to Massage your Trapezius

The trapezius muscles are very likely to have tender knots or trigger points. Pressing on these points can help release the muscle and ease the pain from its strain. Use your good judgment–do not press so hard or long that you hurt yourself! This is about stress relief and not injury,

Triggerpoints for sore trapezius muscles

When you press on any of the areas shown in red, you are likely to find a tender area. Apply firm but gentle pressure for 10-30 seconds. Sometimes you will feel the muscle relax under your fingers.

These areas can be difficult to reach if you are trying to massage your own back. Here are some tricks to get to the sore spots!

Lying Down

Giving yourself a shoulder massage

Gving yourself a shoulder massage lying down

When you lie down, your trapezius muscle relaxes because it doesn’t need to hold the weight of your arms. Be sure to use a pillow that keeps your neck exactly in line with your spine, otherwise the trap may get stressed in this position.

Once you are lying down, just knead your muscles and press on any sore spots.

Tennis Ball

Self back massage with a tennis ball--placing the ball   Self back massage with tennis ball--trigger point pressure

Place a tennis ball (or hard rubber ball) under your trapezius one of the tender areas and lie on it.

Self back massage--trapezius massage close-up

You can control the location and pressure by moving your body.

Self massage techniques: using a tennis ball against a door frame   Self massage techniques: using a tennis ball against a door frame for trapezius massage

Another nice way to reach your trap muscles is to use the tennis ball against a door frame. This looks more awkward than it feels. It is really a very nice way to massage the tops of your shoulders.

Body Back Buddy

Body Back Buddy: massaging your trap muscles   The Body-Back-Buddy: Trapezius massage

The Body Back Buddy is a handy tool which can help you reach many unreachable pressure points. You can use it easily on any of the areas of trapezius muscle pain.

I also recommend online yoga classes to help correct your posture, stretch your muscles and relieve your back pain.

About Julia Rymut

Julia Rymut helps women find peace in their busy lives. She uses massage, essential oils, organization and a sense of humor to show that stress is a state of mind that can be changed. She lives in Madison, WI with her 2 kids and loves talking about history, traveling to exotic places, working out and walking in the woods.

Comments

  1. Oh my gosh, my left trapezius muscle has been hurting me for about three weeks now. I will definitely try this tennis ball massage as it looks the best for the pain I am having. Thanks for the advice!

  2. Jan Shelton says:

    This makes a lot of sence to me! My p.t. Insists it’s my neck that is making my trap tight. Excersices, ultra sound, stim treatment on neck. Nothing works. My head hurts every time I go to p.t. Behind ear & around eyebrow. Should I. See a shoulder doc to prescribe the right kind of p.t.?

    • Hi Jan,
      I’m not a doctor and of course no one can tell what is going on with you from a comment on a blog post. If you feel that a doctor could get you to the right treatment, then go for it. Always take sensible measures to keep yourself healthy. Once you’re sure that nothing serious is going on, then you are free to experiment with treatments that can help.

      I find a lot of relief from my own self-massage. This page has lots of tips.

      If you don’t find any my ideas working, see if you can find an Active Release Technique (ART) practitioner locally. This technique uses deep pressure to break up adhesions in the muscles. I know many people who have found relief with ART.

      I hope this helps!
      Julia

  3. My neck and uppe back have been hurting from years. Some of it is from sleeping in the wrong position for so many years. I tried the tennis ball massage but it doesn’t relieve much

  4. I have fibromyalagia, and lots of trouble relaxing my shoulders back and down. Pilates made me cognizant of my bad posture (which can really aggravate this area). It cured all my aches and pains. I’m on summer break, and it’s back. Pilates helps correct posture and body aches. It is my miracle cure!

  5. I love your posts and Q&A’s. I have hern/bulging discs and trap issues for 10+ yrs. any suggestions? DR’s, PT, nero’s, don’t think it’s a big deal b/c it’s nothing ‘major’ on MRI’s etc. But when nerves are bothered and traps and muscles all go into spasm I’m a mess. I moved back to NYC and walking and carrying as little as possible but need to work!! Hot yoga always helped in past but can’t find time or money for that now. I have alot of stress and that doesn’t help. I try and do stretches but forget….

    My real question…I need a back pack or messenger bag for my issues. Any idea of what kind? with winter coming I can’t use many of the bags w/a winter coat. I won’t have good insurance for another 2 months. TY for any help.

    Laura

    • Hi Laura,

      Yikes! You describe stress exactly–no money (or insurance or time) means no classes which means more pain which can mean less money because you miss work!

      First of all, if you know what stretches help, do them! I say this knowing that it is hard to make yourself stretch when you’re in pain, but honestly, your body needs you to do this. Do a few simple stretches in the morning, in the evening and several times during the day. You’ll be surprised how much better you’ll feel with just a little stretching.

      When your insurance kicks in, re-start your hot yoga classes.

      I don’t have any back pack recommendations but that is a great idea for an article. My first tip is to evaluate how much you really need to carry every day. I know that my purse is a lot heavier than it needs to be. Can you reduce your purse to a credit card, a key and your phone? Leave some touch-up make-up at work and maybe you don’t need to carry a bag. Your post mentioned that you need to carry things for work, so I might have over simplified it… My apologies if I’m underestimating your needs.

      If carrying a pack is too hard on your back, have you considered getting a carry-on piece of luggage and just rolling your load? This might be easier on your back unless you have to carry that bag up and down the subway steps a lot.

      These are my ideas off the top of my head. I’ll think about it and if I come up with any other ideas, I’ll write an article.

      Good luck,

      Julia

  6. I have to sleep on a wedge pillow because of another illness and was told by my Dr. to use hot pack and pain pills -hot pack seems to work some for a short while but don`t like taking pain pills. have tried supporting my neck with a rolled towel head needs i believe need more support have had more stress due to conflict -slim in stature- the pain raidate down my right arm. – what are Pilates?

    • Hi Dorothy,

      Pilates is a type of exercise that stresses good alignment and core strength. It can be done on the floor or with special machines that use springs to build your strength. Pilates has helped many people with back pain. If you can find a Pilates instructor, give it a try.

      I hope you feel better soon and get some sleep. It is certainly hard to cope with pain if you’re exhausted.

      Julia

  7. My left trap has been tight for the last year. The last couple of weeks it is in so much pain I can’t function, feels like a 2nd or 3rd degree burn which really hurts by the way. My problem is stress related but initially started from a head/back/neck injury where I’m not as active now. I’m going to try some of the techniques I just read. They make sense. Chiropracter & deep tissue massage therapy has not helped. Is there a cortozone shot or anything like that to help with the pain? Thanks for the info and/or any reply.

    Note: My friend uses the tip of her elbow while doing a circular massage motion and to get deep down into the trap/back muscles. Even the smallest women has a lot of strength in shoulder/bicep to potentially help her significant other out/vice versa, even if you don’t know how to give a massage or think you don’t have the strength. Unfortunately for me it is only a temp fix in my case. Good luck.

    • Boy, Gary, I’m sorry to hear how much pain you’re in. I’m not a doctor, so I can’t suggest anything other than what you’re doing.

      I’ve had great luck with yoga for pain management. Generally this is not a quick fix, but take a long term view. Look for a yoga instructor who is very skilled with therapeutic yoga and can help you with alignment and habitual moving patterns. Maybe there is something you can do with your alignment to help relieve your pain.

      Good luck.

      Julia

  8. I’ve been getting migraines for about 3 months now, I’ve had CT scans but the doctors say nothing is wrong then in the past couple of weeks I’ve started getting really bad pain in my right shoulder and neck. To the point my arm is numb. I’ve tried everything, nothing seems to help. I really don’t like the idea of pain medication but I’m afraid this may be the only thing to help. I have a prescription but I don’t really want to take it. Do you have any other suggestions?

    • Hi Whitney,

      I can’t suggest anything other than getting a second opinion. You might also try talking to a chiropractor–they have a lot of luck with pain management and I know many people who get relief from them.

      Sorry I can’t be of more help. Good luck and I hope your pain is relieved soon.

      Julia

    • Sometimes pain moving down into the arm and causing numbness is connected to bulging disk. Have you and a cervical MRI to ensure that bulging disk are not causing the pain?

  9. Great article. I was struggling with trapz pain for the past week and it aggravated post a 12 hour car ride. I think it’s vital to understand that any repetitive motion over a long period of time will only make things worse

    • Yup, Rohit,

      You’re absolutely right–repetitive motion makes things worse. I’ve been using yoga to manage back pain and have great results. But recently I also had an Active Release Technique (ART) massage. This massage is very deep and helps release the micro scars in fascia that result from repetitive motion. If you have pain from repetitive motion, you might give either yoga or ART a try!

      Julia

  10. Carol Norsworthy says:

    I was diagnosed at the ER with Trapezius muscle strain; however, my pain radiates to the front of my chest and it’s painful when I take a deep breath and I also have pain behind my left breast. It began with the upper back pain and then the raidating to the front of the chest, then shoulders, etc.
    I did follow up with my Dr. who gave me Naprxin and Flexeril for 10days along with a prescriptio for PT.

    Are you familiar with the front chest and breast pain with this condition?

    Does this sound like I was diagnosed properly?

    Many thanks.

    • Hi Carol,

      I’m not a doctor and even if I were, there’s no way to tell if you were diagnosed properly in a blog. If you’re uncomfortable with your diagnosis, I recommend that you get a second opinion. Sometimes a different doctor has a very different perspective.

      It’s not uncommon for stress in one muscle to have pain in many places in your body. The trapezius has many functions including support of the upper back and aiding in breathing. I suggest you talk to your doctor and PT to make sure your symptoms are consistent with a strained trapezius.

      Good luck and I hope you heal quickly.

    • TRYING2HELP says:

      Hi Carol, I was diagnosed with the same condition, Trapezius muscle sprain & strain @ the ER back in 2005. I also,had your same symptoms and I’m still having these symptoms due to my job. It causes me to have poor posture & my job is also very repetitive along with my head in a forward position all this for 7,hours a day 5,days a week. So this could be contributing to your pain also. The scalene muscle is the muscle according to trigger points that causes pain in the chest area.According to trigger points the pectoralis minor muscles also, is a muscle that causes muscle pain in the chest & shoulder area. Just try going to triggerpointsmaps.com. Very informative site. Blessings 2 u!

  11. I’ve been having bad headaches lately, usually accompanied by shoulder/neck/jaw pain. I have TMJ, so I think thats where my jaw pain come from. I’m in high school, and I take all honors classes so I’m easily stressed in school. I normally get a headache around 12:30, when I am in math. My mom thinks thats because math is very stressful for me. I have the pain in my shoulder/neck all day usually. Sometimes if my neck hurts on the left side, my left arm and left leg will hurt too. Its a different pain from growing pains, so I know it is not that. I did not get a headache today, but my arm felt like I just got a shot all day. I had/have pain in my shoulder/neck right now. I try not to take medicine a lot, so normally I have to work through it. Should I go to a doctor or chiropractor, or just work through it.

    • Hi Lee,

      I’m sorry you have so much pain, especially when you have to get through the stress of school.

      First of all, I suggest you go to a doctor to make sure nothing is wrong. After that, a chiropractor is a great idea.

      The other thing I suggest is that you find an activity that your really enjoy and which helps you relax. If you can, choose an active activity so you move around.

      When you get stressed from math, take a little time to do this activity. Learning to control your pain and relax your muscles is one part of stress relief. Learning to handle the stresses in your life is the second part.

      Good luck. I hope your chiropractor can help you.

  12. Ohh my the tennis ball thing works great thank you very much :) doing bodybuilding and my traps where under alot of tension

  13. Jan Shelton says:

    Ok so I finally got relief! My I pad is causing the pain. I sit with it on my lap & read. Not smart! Looking down really bothered me. Also, my husband did pressure point using his elbow & at the same time I took a long cleansing breath. It relaxed finally. Put heat on it after. Feels much better.
    Just have to quit doing computer stuff on my lap!!

  14. Wow, I’m so glad I found this website! I am suffering with trap pain due to many years of computer use and holding a phone receiver on my shoulder (I was a pharmacist). After retiring, I spend lots of time at my computer in my new profession as a photographer. Out of the frying pan and into the fire!
    I’ve tried all sorts of treatment and have some success but it’s a matter of building up injured muscles and ergonomics. Time is a four letter, as they say.
    One huge caution- be careful with NSAIDS ( Ibuprofen, Aspirin, Aleve, etc.). Even though I managed to get some pain relief from these drugs, I found my blood pressure had gone through the roof! This is something that I was not really aware of, even though I was a pharmacist. It’s not a common side effect but can happen with some people.
    I’m using alternating ice and heat (10 – 15 minute cycles), stretches and shoulder shrugs, the tennis ball thing, yoga, tai chi, and moderate hand weight exercises. Progress is slow but is happening.

    • Julia Rymut says:

      Hi Howard!

      I’m so glad you’re getting relief! It sounds like you have a good system.

      Your cautionary advice is very welcome–especially from a pharmacist. HSAIDS are strong drugs even though they are available over the counter. I always recommend that people use them as little as possible and rely on non-pharmaceutical pain relief (like the tips in my website) when possible.

      Keep up the good work.

  15. Ive been doing a telesales job for almost a year now.
    Because my eyesight is poor , I have to lean forward at a very acute angle with a magnifying glass to see the numbers i have to ring.
    It started with the tops of my shoulders , but its worked its way down to the inside ridges of the shoulder blades and the traps right in the centre of my back , between my shoulder blades.
    I dont get a lot of pain……just burning patches , but there is a really horrible weakness and fatigue which is on a par with pain in its potency.
    My upper arms also feel weak to the point where my hands shake sometimes.
    I’ve had blood tests done because I had no idea at first what it was , and all the tests for thyroid , liver , blood etc….were all great.
    Sometimes it feels like someone has punched my back and i feel the imprint of their hand.

    I now have rounded shoulders which rise up to my ears on their own sometimes , and i have great difficulty in relaxing them , even after getting a memory foam mattress.

    I bought a foam roller which irons out the knots in my back , and i bought a much bigger magnifying glass so i dont have to lean so far forward.
    I also have an appointment with a physiotherapist in 3 weeks because its driving me crazy. It feels so deep that I feel nauseous sometimes , and it tires me out because the strain of holding the juscle in the posture its always been in , just wears me out.

    I have to add……..im well built with broad shoulders .
    The doc prescribed me diazepam , and robaxin. Both of these work , but i dont want to rely on artificial tablets and would rather deal with the root of the problem than try to mask it with pills.

    • Julia Rymut says:

      Chris, your description is spot-on. Staring at the computer while leaning forward is torture for your neck and shoulders.

      You seem to have a really good routine to care for your body. Make sure your monitor (or the magnifying glass) is eye-level while your head is in a neutral position, but keep your keyboard low enough so your wrists are neutral. Keep using that foam roller! And hopefully your PT will have some good exercises for you.

      Good luck. I hope your pain eases soon.

  16. I too have been suffering from these symptoms and decided to see a chiropractor because I knew my physician would give me drugs only to deal with the pain and I wanted a cure not a bandaid. Anyway, I caution using a chiropractor as well. Due to treatments, I ended up with vertigo. Now I am dealing with this and still have no relief from the pain in my shoulder. There was never a mention of this possibility before treatment. I will stick to these suggestions and self treatment from now on. If I end up worse, I’ll have no one to blame but myself.

    • Julia Rymut says:

      Hi Debbie,

      I’m so sorry to hear about your experience with your chiropractor. Generally I find chiropractic care very helpful but it’s a good reminder that no treatment has guarantees. Everything can be both helpful and harmful.

      Good luck with your healing.

  17. Hi there Julia! I’m a Personal Trainer and busy mum like yourself! I was suffering from neck pains that were driving me crazy! Had to cancel appointments, was having anti- inflammatories, visits to the physio, so, in desperation, I started researching the net for words like ” trapeze muscle, fascia release” when I came across your article.
    I found a tennis ball somewhere in the house and followed the exercises you described above and… Whaaata relieeeeeve!!!
    Thank you SO much u are a genius! We should always trust a mother instinct!
    And what I find even more interesting NOBODY from the highly qualified specialists could come up with PRACTICAL hints to help a mum in pain!
    Great stuff I’ll follow u on Twitter! XO
    Dani

    • Julia Rymut says:

      Hi Dani,

      I’m so glad the tennis ball helped you. It’s a great trick and I use it myself quite often. I’ve followed you on Twitter as well.

      Julia

      Yes, I agree that I always ask another mum for practical help when I need it!

  18. Susan Johnstonbaugh says:

    My pain started as headaches, tried PT, massages weekly, accupuncture, bought a new mattress, new pillows, Nsaisa, muscle relaxer, then finally a new chiropractor. He ended up giving me a pinched nerve. After a months worth of adjustments I begged for a new set of cervical spine xrays, the Xrays showed the compressed vertebrae, and went for an MRI. Orthopedist recc a pain management specialist and I have had 5 sera of cortisone injections since February. This past week my right shoulder and right trap got terrible spasms I went to the ER. JUST had another cervical epidural today. Praying the pain is gone when the local anesthetic wears off. Good luck to all, this is the worst pain I have ever had.

  19. Hi,

    I suffer from severe trap muscle sprain. Sometimes, I can’t even move my neck.or even lie flat, and I have to take muscle relaxers. When it is not so severe, I can go to a chiropractor, but it will take about a week to settle.

    What I learned works best is prevention, and I discovered that when I sleep with my arm(s) raised above my head for a long period of time, I will awaken with trapezius muscle issues. So, I try not to do that, and it works. However, I can’t always control how I sleep, but I do try.

    • Julia Rymut says:

      Thanks for the tip, Tracy. Occasionally I sleep with my arms above my head. I’ll have to experiment to see if it makes my back worse.

  20. Lesley Williams says:

    Has anyone experienced head tremors as a result of trapezius overactivity? If so, do you have any suggestions for minimising this troubling symptom?

  21. Hi, i too suffer with a bad upper back, shoulders and neck. But i also find my head will twitch i cant control it and i do think its all related. My shoulders feel so heavy all of the time. Im a student so sit at the computer alot of the time some days i can sit there for 10 hours i know its bad. I came on here because i am sick of the heavy achy feeling i have all of the time and because of the twitching maybe i have trapped a nerve. Wasnt sure if to visit the doctor or not just keep putting it off.

    • Julia Rymut says:

      Hi Nicola,
      I definitely think you should get the advice of a doctor. You don’t want to live with aching shoulders and a twitching head! Your doctor can help you figure out what will help you most.

  22. Well I can rule out the bra straps and breast feeding, but everything else is still quite relevant and helpful for men with trapezius muscle pain…so thank you for this helpful and informative article!

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