Traps get a lot of flack for being too tight, causing headaches, and as the source of neck and shoulder pain. Are they really the source of all that discomfort? Yes and no.
When most people think of traps, they imagine the muscle you grab at the junction between your neck and shoulders. People who tell me their shoulders hurt or are tight most commonly mean this area. The trapezius muscles are so much more! See that gigantic triangle of muscle? That entire thing is the trap! The fibers connecting the neck and the shoulder are part of the segment dubbed the “upper traps.”
The upper traps can absolutely get tight and cause all of that head, neck, and shoulder pain. In my experience, however, it is rarely ever the this muscle segment that is the source of the dysfunction. A certain amount of tension is to be expected in the upper traps. They play tug-of-war, try to maintain balance between the conflicting forces of the neck, shoulder, and the lower traps. Often it is the lower traps that are the primary issue.
Lower trap (purple in the gif) has significantly more mass than upper trap (orange). When the lower fibers are overactive, their counterpart has to work extra hard to keep them in check. Essentially the tension in the upper traps is solely reactionary. If we were to address where the pain is felt in the upper traps when facilitated lower traps are the condition creating pain, any relief you find will be minimal, short-lived, or both.
You will likely find short term relief or next-to-no relief by treating the upper traps as well if the lower traps are inhibited. Yes, both over and under activation in the lower traps can create similar pain patterns. When the lower traps are lacking tone, upper traps do not change much at all, but your mind/body will register them as tighter because they are in comparison to the other musculature in the area. The tension in your upper traps is basically an illusion!
Have you ever had an instance of neck and shoulder pain that wasn’t alleviated by working on the upper traps? What other methods did you use to find relief? Let me know in the comment!
Share if you thought this article was helpful! *Gif by Anatomography CC BY-SA 2.1 jp, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22182550
LMBT & Founder of Philosopher's Stone Therapeutic Massage
Serving Haddonfield, NJ and Surrounding Areas
Rhiannon loves helping you solve your pain puzzles! A chronic pain specialist with a sub-specialty in pelvic dysfunction, she understands the huge impact pain can have on your life and is dedicated to helping you reach your health goals so you can enjoy your life fully and whole. Though her style can sometimes be described as "therapeutic fluff," she is not the therapist to see for a "just to treat myself" massage.
Augmenting her initial massage training with multiple courses and certifications including SMRT, ATMAT, and IHPS she has the skills to create effective and lasting change for you. But don't go on blind faith - check out her amazing reviews!