Severe pain in your trapezius muscle can be caused by inflammation. An inflamed trapezius muscle can literally be a pain in the neck. However, this large muscle also moves your shoulders and upper back, and inflammation of this muscle can make it difficult to manage everyday tasks. An inflamed trapezius can cause muscle pain, or trapezius myalgia. The good news is a trapezius strain can usually be treated successfully with home remedies and physical therapy.
An inflamed trapezius muscle can be treated with rest, ice, gentle stretching and massage.
Get to Know Your Traps
Although many people refer to the top of the shoulders as their "traps," this triangular-shaped muscle actually runs from the back of the neck, across the top of the shoulders and down the middle of your back along the length of your rib cage. The trapezius muscle also attaches to your collar bone and shoulder blade on each side of the body.
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The trapezius muscle shrugs your shoulders up toward your ears and and rotates your shoulder blades to allow you to reach overhead. It also helps you maintain proper posture by pulling your shoulder blades together. Inflammation of this large muscle can make it difficult to move your neck, shoulders and upper back.
Read more: Trapezius & Neck Pain
Trapezius Strain Symptoms
A trapezius strain, or pulled muscle, is characterized by inflammation. Symptoms of a trapezius strain can include pain, limited range of motion, weakness in the trap muscle, redness or bruising, muscle spasms and swelling, according to Mayo Clinic. Your head might also feel "heavy" due to increased pressure on this muscle. Specific symptoms depend on the severity of your injury and how it occurred.
Trapezius Muscle Pain Causes
Muscle pain can be caused by acute injury — pain occurring right after a traumatic event — or can be chronic, developing over time. Although the trapezius or any other muscle can be inflamed from direct trauma, such as lifting something heavy or falling on an outstretched arm, trapezius myalgia more often develops from repeated overuse of this muscle, according to Physiopedia. Work or sports activities that require repetitive overhead movement or sustained positioning can cause trapezius muscle strain.
Home Remedies for Pain
A trapezius strain can often be successfully treated at home. Trapezius muscle inflammation from acute injury can be immediately treated using the formula RICE — rest, ice, compression and elevation.
Resting doesn't mean you should lie in bed, but you should temporarily stop doing the activity that causes your pain. Ice application helps reduce blood flow to decrease inflammation. Ice can be applied for 15 to 20 minutes at a time, every few hours. Although ice helps decrease pain, it can temporarily cause increased stiffness, making it more difficult to move your shoulder or neck.
The location of the trapezius muscle doesn't easily lend itself to the use of a compression wrap, but resting in a semi-reclined position keeps the injured area above the level of your heart, allowing gravity to assist with swelling reduction. Anti-inflammatory medication might also help with your symptoms, but check with your doctor to make sure these meds are safe for you.
Trapezius pain that occurs from overuse injuries or occurs on a regular basis, might respond better to heat. Applying heat to your trapezius strain increases blood flow to the muscle, decreasing pain and reducing stiffness.
Read more: Heat or Cold for Neck & Shoulder Pain?
Stretching and Trigger Point Release
Stretching and trigger point release are effective for trapezius pain relief.
Stretch your trapezius muscle several times per day.
HOW TO DO IT: To stretch your left trapezius muscle, sit up tall and rest your left arm behind your back. Lift your right arm sideways over your head and place your hand on your left temple. Gently pull your head to the right, bringing your right ear toward your right shoulder. Stop when you feel a pulling sensation along the left trapezius.
Hold for 20 to 30 seconds; then relax. Repeat three times and switch sides — even if your other muscle isn't sore — to keep both sides flexible.
Trigger point release can reduce severe pain in the trapezius muscle.
HOW TO DO IT: Lie on a firm surface. Place a tennis ball, golf ball or other similar-sized firm ball under your upper back on your tight side. Slowly shift your back position until the ball is resting on a very sore spot. This will not be comfortable and initially might even be painful. Relax and breathe slowly.
Hold this pressure for 30 seconds to several minutes until the pain subsides. Reposition the ball to another sore spot and repeat. Be sure to perform this technique only over muscle, not bone.
Strengthen Your Traps
Exercises help you regain strength after a trapezius strain. Strengthening your traps also helps improve your posture, which can reduce risk of re-injury.
Shoulder shrugs can be performed without fancy gym equipment.
HOW TO DO IT: Stand up straight with your shoulder blades pulled back toward each other. Hold a small dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing your legs. Shrug your shoulders up toward your ears as high as possible.
Hold for two to three seconds; then relax. Repeat 10 times, working up to three sets in a row. Increase dumbbell weight as strength improves.
The upright row is another strengthening exercise that targets the traps.
HOW TO DO IT: Stand up tall with a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing your body. Lift the dumbbells toward your chin, bringing your elbows out to your sides. The dumbbells should remain close to your body throughout the movement. Hold for two to three seconds; then lower to starting position.
Physical Therapy for Trapezius Strain
If home remedies don't work, consider seeing a physical therapist for your trapezius strain. A therapist can help identify the underlying cause of your muscle issues and find solutions to help prevent re-injury. Modalities such as ultrasound and electrical stimulation are also used in physical therapy to help decrease your muscle inflammation.
- Mayo Clinic: Muscle Strains: Symptoms and Causes
- Physiopedia: Trapezius Myalgia
- Emond Publishing: Examples of Exercises for Designing a Weight Training Program
- Mayo Clinic: Muscle Strains: Diagnosis and Treatment
- Postgraduate Medicine: Mechanisms and Efficacy of Heat and Cold Therapies for Musculoskeletal Injury