Levator Scapula Muscle and Its Role in Pain and Posture

The levator scapula, or levator scap for short, muscle is one of several muscles that comprise the "superficial layer" of back muscles.  

The levator scap influences both neck motion and upper back posture. It is involved in several movements of the scapula.


Understanding the Levator Scapula Muscle

Levator scapula muscles run from the top inside border of shoulder bone to the neck.
SCIEPRO/Science Photo Library/Getty Images

Scapula is another name for the shoulder blade; it is the flat, triangularly shaped bone that sits on top of the upper part of your rib cage.

There are two scapula bones, one on either side of the spine, in back.

The levator scap brings the shoulder blade, or scapula, up, which is a movement that is called elevation. It also rotates the scapula downward.

By pulling upward from the inner corner of the scapula bone towards the outside of the neck, where the levator scapula attaches, this muscle indirectly moves the bottom tip of the scapula towards the spine. This is the downward rotation movement mentioned above.

These shoulder blade movements are generally part of the larger movements of flexion and abduction of the shoulder joint. Flexion occurs when you move your arm forward and up towards the ceiling, and abduction occurs when you move your arm out to the side.

During flexion and/or abduction, the levator scap is actively contracting.

Levator scapula muscle contraction can also move the neck. It participates in side bending, which is called lateral flexion, and rotation, or twisting.

The levator scap originates from the cervical vertebra one through four (C1 to C4) and attaches to the inside top edge of the scapula.


Levator Scapula Muscle's Role in Head and Neck Posture

Woman craning her neck to see her laptop screen.
Andrey Popov

Neck and shoulder pain is a problem commonly faced by office workers, truck drivers and others who sit all day on the job. And it's made worse when the chair or car seat used by the worker does not offer support for a well-aligned spine.

Poorly designed work furniture may contribute to chronic muscle tension and spasm, plus muscle weakness.

One of the primary functions of the levator scap is to keep your shoulder blade in a position that supports a vertical alignment of your head on your neck, and to prevent forward head posture, a condition in which your head is too far forward. 

But the shoulder blade is, by nature, an extremely movable bone. Keeping it steady in order to maintain appropriate neck posture is no easy feat.

To understand what a movable shoulder blade may do to your levator scap, which is assigned to keeping it in the right position on your back, imagine standing on a surfboard in the ocean while holding and using your electronic equipment and other office supplies. In this case, dynamic opposing movements would likely require your muscles and bones to both shift independently and to work together to enable you to type, reach for your cell phone and manage your balance as the water surges underneath you.

In this and similar, albeit less dramatic, scenarios, the levator scap may not be strong enough to keep the shoulder blade where it's supposed to be for good head on neck posture. Instead, it may become overstretched. 

When muscles become overstretched, they often become taut as a way of offering stability. This may feel like muscle tension due to muscle shortening, but, it's actually different than that.

And the situation may be made worse if you slouch, you don't have lumbar support, and/or your desk or steering wheel is either too high or too low, which may force the shoulder blade into an either upward or downward position.


Treating Neck and Shoulder Pain When the Levator Scapula is Involved

Woman massaging neck
Chad Springer/Getty Images

The levator scapula muscle is one of a number of shoulder muscles that may be implicated when you have neck pain. Both the shoulder and neck are very complicated, which means it's important to get any pain or dysfunction in that area diagnosed by a qualified, licensed health professional.

And a few sessions with a physical therapist may be enough to get you back on track.

In that case, treatment might consist of working on muscle strength and flexibility for the levator scapula, as well as the other shoulder, neck, and upper back muscles, plus developing better posture habits.

A March 2018 study published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science found that physical therapy exercises — in particular, those that address your upper back posture — may help decrease kyphosis. Kyphosis is often a pre-cursor to forward head posture, a condition mentioned above.

Physical therapy may help you reduce the degree of stress that is placed on the levator. Stretching, strengthening and posture lessons may also help reduce pain, increase physical functioning of the upper body and, in general, improve your quality of life.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Chotai PN, Loukas M, Tubbs RS. Unusual origin of the levator scapulae muscle from mastoid process. Surg Radiol Anat. 2015;37(10):1277-81. doi:+10.1007/s00276-015-1508-6

  2. Yoo WG. Effects of thoracic posture correction exercises on scapular position. J Phys Ther Sci. 2018;30(3):411-412. doi:10.1589/jpts.30.411

Additional Reading

By Anne Asher, CPT
Anne Asher, ACE-certified personal trainer, health coach, and orthopedic exercise specialist, is a back and neck pain expert.