How to Treat Levator Scapula Muscle (Shoulder Muscle) Pain

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

The levator scapula muscle is a member of the superficial layer of back muscles. The levator scapula muscle (or levator scap for short) is commonly referred to as a shoulder muscle.  

The levator scap influences both neck motion and upper back posture. It is responsible for elevating the scapula (shoulder blade) and participates in the rotation of the glenoid cavity (where the ball of the upper arm bone meets with the shoulder). 

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

Levator Scapula Muscle's Role in Head and Neck Posture

Woman craning her neck to see her laptop screen.
Improper desk posture can cause strain to the levator scapula muscles. Andrey Popov

A problem commonly faced by office workers is the neck and shoulder pain caused by sitting at a desk for long periods of time with poor back support. The same may occur with long distance drivers. 

While stretching and moving about may alleviate the symptoms, neither of these may be adequate if there is chronic tightness or muscle spasm. In most cases, they are only a temporary fix.

One of the primary functions of the levator scap is to keep your head from moving too far forward. The problem is that the shoulder blade is an extremely moveable bone. Keeping it steady in order to maintain neck posture is no easy feat.

You might liken this to standing on a surfboard in the ocean while working on your laptop. There are dynamic opposing movements that require your muscles to shift independently as you reach for the phone, pick up a pencil, or twist in your chair. 

When this happens, the levator scap may become overstretched, and its ability to maintain head position is seriously weakened. It is a situation made worse if a person slouches, doesn't have lumbar support, or is at a desk or steering wheel that is either too high or too low (forcing shoulders either upward or downward).

Treating Neck and Shoulder Pain

Woman massaging neck
Finding 'the spot" near the inside top corner of the shoulder blades. Chad Springer/Getty Images

Another one of the levator scapula's functions is to raise the shoulder blades. Because the blades have a natural tendency to ride up toward the ears, the levator scapula is often drafted to keep the down and stabilized. To do this, the levator scapula must contract and lengthen at the same time. This can result in tightness and pain in the neck and shoulders, sometimes severe.

To alleviate this, you can use a relatively simple massage technique:

  1. Locate the inside top corner of the shoulder blade with your opposite hand. 
  2. With your fingers, press into the area just above the inside top corner of the shoulder blade where the soft tissue is. We refer to this area as "the spot." You should be fully off the bone and onto the muscle that attaches to the bone. 
  3. With a pressure that is firm enough to create tension (but not so firm that it hurts), move your fingers back and forth over the spot in a circular motion.
  4. Trace the muscle all the way up to your neck, making little circles, then let the muscle tension guide from the inside top of the shoulder blade all the way to the side of the neck.
  5. Repeat on the other side.
    View Article Sources
    • Wheeless, C. "Levator Scapula." Wheeless Textbook of Orthopaedics. Nunley, J. and Urbaniak, J. eds. Durham, North Caroline: Duke Orthopaedics; 2016.