The trapezius is a muscle in the upper back. It is large and triangular, extending to the width of the shoulders and running from the skull to the thoracic spine, in the middle of the back.

The trapezius has three sections, the superior, middle, and inferior segment, and each plays a role in specific movements of the neck and shoulders.

Below, learn about the functions of the trapezius, causes of pain and soreness in this muscle, and how to relieve the discomfort.

Stretching can help keep the trapezius muscle from getting too tight. It may also prevent or relieve pain.

Move in and out of a stretch gently, avoiding jerky movements and bouncing. Hold each stretch for about 15–30 seconds. A stretch should cause tension but no pain — avoid forcing any stretches.

A person might try the following stretches after reviewing them with a physical therapist or physician.

Cat stretch

To do the cat stretch:

  1. Get into position on all fours on the floor.
  2. Inhale and curl the spine up toward the ceiling while contracting the abdominal muscles.
  3. Hold the position for 15 seconds.
  4. Exhale, and allow the belly to sink toward the floor, while arching the back.

Ear-to-shoulder

To do an ear-to-shoulder stretch:

  1. Sit up straight in a chair.
  2. Slowly bend the head over to the left side as though trying to touch the left ear to the left shoulder.
  3. Place the left hand on the head and gently pull it toward the shoulder for a deeper stretch.
  4. Hold the position for 20 seconds.
  5. Release the head and perform the same stretch on the right side.

Hug stretch

To do a hug stretch:

  1. Stand up straight.
  2. Reach the right arm across the chest and hold the left shoulder. Do the opposite on the other side, holding the right shoulder with the left hand.
  3. Press down on the left shoulder with the right hand while leaning the head to the right.
  4. Hold the stretch for about 20 seconds.
  5. Repeat on the other side.

The trapezius stabilizes the shoulder blades and facilitates shoulder and neck movement.

The superior, or upper, segment of the muscle helps elevate the shoulder blades. The upper trapezius also helps the neck rotate and tilt.

The middle segment brings the shoulder blades back, and it provides stability for the shoulder during some arm movements. The lower trapezius helps bring the shoulder blades down.

The trapezius can become painful or sore for many reasons. A person may also have:

  • stiffness in the upper back
  • shoulder or neck pain
  • muscle spasms
  • tingling or numbness in one or both arms
  • a decreased range of motion in the shoulders or neck

There are several possible causes of trapezius pain, including:

  • Overuse: Repetitive activities that involve the shoulders, such as swimming or lifting heavy objects, can put stress on the muscle.
  • Stress: When a person is stressed, they may tense the muscles of their shoulders and neck, which can cause soreness over time.
  • Poor posture: Poor posture can place added stress on the trapezius over time. Hunching over a desk or computer keyboard for many hours, for example, can result in the muscle becoming shortened and tight.
  • Injury or physical trauma: Injuries to the trapezius, such as a muscle tear, can lead to pain.
  • A pinched nerve in the spine: This can cause muscle cramps in the area.

The best treatment for trapezius pain may depend on the cause, but resting the muscle and avoiding any painful activities will help the muscle heal.

Additional remedies

Other home remedies include:

Applying ice and heat

Both hot and cold therapy may reduce muscle pain.

Applying ice can lower levels of inflammation, while heat can reduce muscle spasms, increase blood flow to the area, and promote healing.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs

Over-the-counter pain relievers and topical creams may help reduce trapezius pain.

Popular nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) include ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve). Another type of NSAID, diclofenac, comes as a gel for topical use on the affected area.

People who are pregnant or who have certain medical conditions may need to avoid NSAIDs. Anyone who is unsure about what to take should speak with a doctor or pharmacist first.

Physical therapy and alternative treatments

In addition, a person may also consider trying the following:

Taping

Having kinesiology tape, which is elastic, wrapped around the painful area may reduce pressure on the muscle.

One small, short-term study recruited 73 participants with trapezius pain. They had a pain assessment before and after kinesiology taping, as well as a 24-hour follow-up assessment. The researchers found that kinesiology taping significantly reduced subjective pain sensation.

Although the study was limited, kinesiology taping is a low-risk option that may provide some relief.

Dry needling

Dry needling is a technique that involves inserting short, fine needles into the skin at specific trigger points. Proponents say that this releases muscle knots and may decrease pain.

A small 2018 study involving 40 adult athletes with shoulder pain found that dry needling in the upper trapezius reduced the severity of pain.

Home remedies, such as resting, applying ice, and using over-the-counter pain medication may help, but anyone with ongoing pain and limited movement should visit a doctor or physical therapist.

Consulting a professional is especially important for a person who experiences any of the following:

  • severe pain
  • an inability to move the shoulder or neck
  • pain that lasts for more than a week
  • signs of infection, such as skin redness, a fever, and chills
  • a depression or deformity in the trapezius, which can indicate a severe muscle tear
  • excess sweating
  • loss of bowel or bladder function
  • unintended weight loss
  • an unsteady gait
  • loss of balance

Like all muscles, the trapezius is vulnerable to injury. There are many causes of trapezius pain, including a pulled muscle and poor posture.

Keeping the muscle flexible and loose with stretches may help prevent soreness, which usually resolves without professional treatment. Home care approaches, such as resting, applying ice, and taking NSAIDs are often sufficient to ease the pain.

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