Causes of Sore Trapezius Muscle

Is your neck or your upper shoulders sore? If so, the pain you're feeling might come from the fan-shaped trapezius muscle, which spreads across your upper back and reaches up into your neck. Trapezius pain can be caused by delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) from a workout, but it can also be the result of poor weightlifting technique or poor posture, especially if you spend a lot of time sitting at a desk.

If your upper shoulders and neck are sore, it might be the result of poor posture or even poor technique in the gym. (Image: fizkes/iStock/GettyImages)

Tip

While your trapezius muscle might be sore because of delayed-onset muscle soreness or DOMS, chronic trapezius pain or discomfort can also be the result of poor lifting technique, postural dysfunction or even everyday movement patterns, like always carrying your backpack on one shoulder.

About That Trapezius Muscle

Your trapezius is a fan-shaped muscle on either side of your spine that also resembles a diamond in appearance. It's a complex muscle that is subdivided into three parts, each of which performs a distinct action:

  • The upper, or superior, fibers of your trapezius muscle elevate the shoulder girdle.
  • The middle fibers retract your shoulder blades or bring them together as if they were trying to pinch your spine.
  • The lower or inferior fibers of the trapezius act to depress your shoulder blades or slide them downward along your back.

Trapezius Pain From DOMS

If you've been doing a lot of upper-body workouts, especially those that require pulling power or stability from the upper body, DOMS might be what's causing your sore trapezius. DOMS usually manifests as soreness, achiness or stiffness through the muscle or, in the case of the trapezius, the portion of the muscle that you've been working out. It usually starts in the 12 to 24 hours following your workout and fades after three to five days.

Although some mild to moderate DOMS is typical after a tough workout, the good news is that you don't actually have to work out to the point of soreness to benefit from exercise, and if you're feeling sore after starting a new workout, the soreness will usually diminish as your body adapts to the new challenge. If you've had time to get used to your workout routine yet still feel more than mild soreness after your workouts, you might want to consider backing off a little bit or double-checking your technique to make sure errors in form aren't causing your trapezius pain.

How's Your Lifting Technique?

Sometimes your trapezius myalgia — the medical term for trapezius pain — may come not from well-earned post-workout soreness, but from errors in technique during that workout. These may go hand-in-hand with poor posture and general dysfunction of the neck and shoulders, or they might be a simple mistake that's easy to fix by looking in a mirror the next time you work out.

If you look in the mirror and it seems as if you're trying to wear your shoulders as a necklace during your workout, something's wrong. Although your shoulders are built to move, they shouldn't be trying to crawl up around your neck. The only exception to this is if you're doing exercises like shoulder shrugs and upright rows, which by definition target the upper trapezius and also elevate the entire shoulder girdle.

Aside from sore trapezius muscles, some cues that indicate you might have problems with your lifting or exercise technique include:

  • Forward-thrusting neck, head or chin as you lift.
  • Needing an uncontrolled movement/heave/jerk to get the weight into place.
  • Forward-slouching shoulders.

If you find yourself doing any of these, fixing the problem might be as simple as tucking your chin back into a neutral position and reminding yourself to bring your shoulder blades down and back instead of in a forward-slouched "up and out" position. But often these issues signify chronic problems with your postural or movement patterns, which means that you might need some help from a qualified trainer, doctor or physical therapist to break the harmful patterns.

Tip

Everyday physical activities that might be causing trapezius pain include slumping forward at a workstation or lifting heavy things far away from you (instead of keeping them close to your body). If you always carry items such as your gym bag, backpack or golf clubs on one side or if you turn your head to one side for swimming or other exercises, this can cause trapezius pain too.

Trapezius Pain From Postural Dysfunction

It's also possible that your trapezius muscle is sore due to poor posture. In today's often sedentary, deskbound world, it's very common to have a forward-thrusting head and neck as well as rounded shoulders, all of which indicate an imbalance in the muscles of your neck and shoulder girdle — including the trapezius.

The good news is that if your sore traps are due to postural problems, an ergonomic workspace paired with stretching and exercise may bring relief. In fact, a six-year study published in a 2012 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine found that gentle stretching and strengthening exercises were as effective as chiropractic treatment and more effective than medication in reducing pain and self-reported disability.

Gentle Stretches for Trapezius Pain

Two gentle, easy stretching exercises you can do to ease pain in your trapezius muscle are:

Side Stretch. Sit up straight in a comfortable chair. Bring your shoulder blades gently back and down to a neutral position. This will help take you out of the shoulders-forward slump. Tuck your chin slightly so that your gaze is focused straight ahead from the eyes, instead of looking down your nose.

Let your head sink gently to the right, as if you were trying to touch your right ear to your right shoulder. Hold this position once you reach the point of gentle tension (not pain) in the muscle. Pay attention to your shoulders and try to keep them level; don't let your left shoulder sneak upward. Do the same stretch on the opposite side, then repeat both sides (right and left) for a total of at least 10 times.

Diagonal Stretch. If you're ready for a slightly more intense stretch, do the same side stretch just described. But once you've tilted your head to the right, let it roll slowly forward at about a 45-degree angle. Again, stretch to the point of tension, not pain, and if either of these stretches causes additional pain, stop doing them.

Add Gentle Exercises

You can also add some gentle strengthening exercises to your daily routine, although it's best to consult a medical or fitness professional to make sure you're doing the right exercises for your specific postural or movement issues. Some of the common exercises you might be instructed to do include:

  • Shoulder/scapular squeezes
  • Wide-grip rows
  • Prone rows
  • Upright rows
  • Shoulder shrugs
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