Levator Scapulae Pain: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, and Exercises

levator scapulae painLevator scapulae pain is one of the most common general muscle complaints and can be associated with sleepless nights and an irritable mood. Understanding the levator scapulae is helpful for both preventing and treating levator scapulae pain.

The levator scapulae muscle is at the side and back of your neck. Its main job is to lift the scapula, which is the triangle-shaped bone situated at the back of the shoulder. The upper portion of the muscle sits under the sternocleidomastoideus muscle, while its lower part sits under the trapezius.


The sternocleidomastoideus muscle is on the side of the neck and is one of the largest and most superficial cervical muscles. It helps to rotate the head to the opposite side and is supplied by a nerve in the cervical spine area.

When someone has a stiff neck or shoulder, the levator scapulae muscle is often a factor. If you were to shrug your shoulders, this muscle would be at work. You bear weight on this muscle when you carry a heavy bag.

Also read: Trapezius muscle pain: Causes, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment and exercises

What Causes Levator Scapulae Pain?

Based on the explanation above, you can imagine levator scapulae action. This muscle can get worked a lot on a daily basis, but having levator scapulae syndrome – which basically means the area is irritated and inflamed – can be terribly uncomfortable and rather restricting. Those who suffer from levator scapulae chronic pain are forced to give up activities that they enjoy since they can activate trigger points in the muscle upon movement.

The following list covers some of the levator scapulae pain causes that doctor’s commonly report:

  • Whiplash from motor vehicle accidents
  • Working at a computer with the head turned
  • Emotional/mental stress
  • Carrying heavy bags with a shoulder strap
  • Chilling of the muscle during sleep from a ceiling fan or air conditioner
  • Holding a phone between the shoulder and ear for too long
  • Using crutches that are too tall
  • Sleeping on your stomach with your head turned
  • Head forward posture

Also read: Exercises and tips to improve posture and alleviate back pain

What Symptoms May Occur with Levator Scapulae Pain?

Some healthcare providers describe people with levator scapulae pain as individuals who “walk like Frankenstein.” They aren’t making fun of these individuals; they are trying to explain what it’s like.

You can see how some of the levator scapulae pain symptoms below demonstrate why this grotesque creature’s name is used.

  • No head forward posture: People with levator scapula pain tend to keep their head directly above their shoulders, while most people walk with their head slightly projected forward.
  • An elevated shoulder: Usually one shoulder blade is held a little higher than the other, which can be seen from the back.
  • Neck stiffness: The sufferer has difficulty moving their head to either side due to stiffness.
  • Anxiety: People with levator scapulae pain often complain about the type of breathlessness that is linked to panic attacks.
  • Painful neck and impaired movement: It can be painful to turn the head fully or lift the neck when you’re in a lying position. Some people have to support their neck with their hands when they attempt to get up.

Also read: Neck spasm: Causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment

How to Treat Levator Scapulae Pain

Levator scapulae pain treatment involves several different potential options. One person may find that they get levator scapulae pain relief from the first couple of treatment options they try, while others who are looking at how to relieve levator scapulae pain have to try various approaches before finding one that is effective.

If you or someone you know suffers from levator scapulae syndrome, consider some of these treatments:

  • Electrical stimulation: This can relax the strained muscle. It involves applying a small amount of current to the stressed muscle.
  • Massage: Having a levator scapulae massage is said to be one of the best ways to relax this muscle and the surrounding area. Myofascial massage can elongate the levator scapulae to encourage relaxation.
  • Ultrasound: Using a sedative and anti-inflammatory gel, which is applied to the strained muscle, ultrasound is performed and can be helpful in relieving pain.
  • Chiropractic: Adjustments can be performed anterior to posterior or lateral to medial, depending on the position of the injured muscle. Of course, a qualified chiropractor must do this.
  • Stretching: Often times, a levator scapulae stretch can be helpful along with some of the other treatment approaches, such as massage.
  • Posture adjustments: Learning proper sitting positions if the problem was caused by poor posture can make a big difference. When sitting, make sure your upper back and neck are not hunched over.
  • Ice and rest: Using ice along with rest can help lower the pain and swelling associated with levator scapulae syndrome.
  • Over-the-counter medications: There are some over-the-counter pain relievers that can help control pain.
  • Surgery: This is rare, but in severe cases and in situations where other treatment options don’t work, surgery may be considered.

Levator Scapulae Pain Relief: Exercises and Massage

Levator scapulae exercises can go a long way in helping those who suffer from this muscle pain feel better. Here are a couple of suggestions when it comes to exercises for levator scapulae pain.

Neck Flexion

Flex the deep muscles on the front of your neck to help tuck your chin down. You can also do a neck flexion by bending the whole neck forward from its base on top of the torso. Neck flexors are easier to do if you lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor, if you’re tucking your chin in and if you lift your head off the floor.

Neck Lateral Flexion

You can laterally flex your neck by standing up and tucking your chin in, bringing your ear toward your shoulder, then returning to an upright position and bringing your ear toward the opposite shoulder.

Self Massage with Your Hands

You can massage the right area by taking your index finger and middle finger from your left hand and crossing them over your chest, placing them on the soft tissue area at the back of your shoulder. Press down and then draw small circles with your shoulder. This will move your scapula.

You can then move your fingers up your neck along the muscle and put pressure on any trigger points you discover. Move your head from side to side, up and down, or in a circular motion. Once you’re finished, you can switch hands to do the other side of your neck. You need to be careful when using the two-finger massage approach since applying too much pressure can agitate the sensitive tissues and nerves, which may lead to dizziness.

Exercises and Stretches to Strengthen Levator Scapulae

There are exercises that can strengthen the levator scapulae. Check out some of the examples below.

Standing levator scapula stretch: You stand up straight with your feet placed shoulder-width apart, then bend your chin to touch your chest towards the right. Place your right hand on your head and now pull down very gently. You should feel a stretch. Hold for 10 seconds and repeat three to five times.

Head rolls: You can perform head rolls side-to-side from left to right or in a circular motion.

Feline stretch: You kneel on all fours with your hands and knees in a relaxed position. Raise your back upwards like a cat and then hold for five seconds before returning to the start position. Repeat five times in three sets.

Shrugs: Stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold a dumbbell in each hand alongside the outside of your thighs. Draw your shoulders straight up to your ears and then lower them back.

Pull-ups: Stand behind a pull-up bar and hold it with an overhand, shoulder-width wide grip. Then contract your stomach muscles as you use your back to pull your body up toward the bar until your chin clears it. Lower down with control to complete the exercise.

Seated stretch: While sitting at your desk, you can grasp the left side of the seat with your left hand. Keep your spine upright and bring your chin toward your chest. You can then tip your head to the right until you feel a stretch. Hold for 20 seconds and repeat a few times. Do the same on the right side.


Levator stretch: When sitting or standing, you can lengthen the muscle by raising your elbow above the shoulder at the side. You can turn your head away from the side that is stretching and bring the chin down to stretch the back of the neck.

Levator scapulae strains and pain are frustrating and can be accompanied by anxiety, fatigue, and depression. If your neck is hurting and nothing seems to be easing the pain, you should seek medical guidance. The longer you have the stiffness and pain, the harder it will be to get back to feeling normal again.


Author Bio

Emily Lunardo studied medical sociology at York University with a strong focus on the social determinants of health and mental illness. She is a registered Zumba instructor, as well as a Canfit Pro trainer, who teaches fitness classes on a weekly basis. Emily practices healthy habits in her own life as well as helps others with their own personal health goals. Emily joined Bel Marra Health as a health writer in 2013.



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