The scalene muscles are a collection of three muscles on each side of the neck, running from the neck vertebrae to the upper ribs. You can feel them by placing your fingertips at the side of your neck and running your hands back and forth – they are particularly palpable the closer you get to your clavicle (collarbone) and they feel quite stringy. Together they work to bring the head forward, but their main role is side-bending of the head, and they play a smaller role in raising the upper ribs, helping to aid respiration.
Most of us haven’t heard of these muscles, but they play a large role in a condition we see all too often in clinic – thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS). The scalenes allow the exit of the brachial plexus (the bundle of nerves supplying the arm) and subclavian artery (supplying blood flow to the upper limbs) and therefore any dysfunction at these muscles can be responsible for symptoms such as numbness, tingling and reduced circulation in the hands and fingers, as well as neck and shoulder pain.
A number of factors can cause the scalene muscles to become dysfunctional including:
· a postural imbalance such as a scoliosis (sideways curve of the spine), compressing one side of the neck
· a previous whiplash injury
· prolonged coughing episodes, e.g a persistent virus, asthma, pneumonia
· sleeping on your front, with your head rotated
· poor daily habits such as sitting with your head bent to the side (poor desk set-up, propping phone to your ear with shoulder)
· carrying very heavy backpacks and shoulder bags
Of course, there can be more serious causes of these symptoms such as joint degeneration and disc herniation and that is one of the reasons it is important to see a musculo-skeletal specialist such as an Osteopath; we are able to isolate the main cause through a number of tests and treat accordingly.
If you think a problematic scalene muscle may be contributing to your neck, shoulder or arm pain, then come and visit our friendly team at Bridge to Health where we will be more than happy to help. Call us on 0203 757 6544 to book an appointment now.
In the meantime, it may be worth trying this simple stretch to reduce chronic tension around the neck and shoulders.
· To stretch the right, place your right arm behind you (this keeps the shoulder down)
· Place your left hand at the back of the right ear and gently guide your head to the left side.
· When you feel a gentle stretch, hold for 5-10 seconds.
· On an exhalation, take the stretch slightly further. Hold for another 5-10 seconds.
· Repeat a third time, and to the other side.