Upper traps feeling like rocks? We know what could be the cause; and it’s not stress!

by Alpine Fit PT, Dr Charlotte Robinson, Physical Therapy

If I had a dollar for every time I heard a patient say “my upper traps are always so tight and have been for years. It’s where I hold my tension,” I’d be able to buy my dog his own house. While stress, anxiety, and mental health do influence our nervous system and pain perception, they are not the direct cause of muscle tightness. The reason you feel more pain here when stress and anxiety levels are higher is because your brain is capitalizing on an already established pain loop, not creating a new one. So what causes this pain and tightness in your upper traps?


Upper Cross Syndrome 

Upper cross syndrome is a well known diagnosis in the physical therapy world. It is a pattern of diagonal tightness and weakness that is driven by a lack of stability and poor posture. 


As humans in the 21st century, we spend a lot of time on our cell phone or working on a computer. It’s very easy while doing these activities to get into the classic poor posture position: shoulders slumped forward, thoracic spine curved, and our head in a forward position. Overtime, the muscles that are put in a shortened position in this posture (the pectorals, upper traps, suboccipitals, and levator scapulae) get adhesed and stuck in this shortened position. The muscles that are lengthened in this position, (rhomboids, middle/lower trapezius, and cervical neck flexors) get weak. This creates an asymmetry across your upper back and neck and leads to tissue tightness and pain.


The Impacts of Poor Posture 

When your pectoralis major and minor are tight in the front of your shoulders they actually pull your shoulders into a forward and internally rotated position and anterior tilt your shoulder blade/ scapula due to their attachments. This puts your upper trap in more of a rounded position and pulls on the upper trap attachment at the base of your skull. This posture also rounds your thoracic spine and protracts your shoulder blades, putting your middle trap, lower trap, and rhomboids in a disadvantaged lengthened position for activation. 


Trapezius Anatomy – Let’s Break Down the 3 Parts

Your trapezius muscle is made up of 3 parts; the upper, middle, and lower trap. The upper trap assists with shoulder shrugging, cervical rotation, and upward rotation of your shoulder blade. The middle and lower traps help with shoulder blade retraction and upward rotation. With chronic poor posture, we explained above that your upper trap gets tight while your middle and lower traps get weak. This creates an asymmetry within the muscle itself. Your upper trap is over working and tight because it’s the only portion providing stability and movement to your shoulder blade because your middle and lower trap is inhibited and not doing it’s fair share of the work.


How Do We Fix It?

To make your upper traps happier and healthier, we need to fix the postural position of our shoulders to bring our shoulder blades back to a neutral position and strengthen the middle and lower part of our trapezius. To combat the slumped posture position, stretching your pecs and mobilizing your thoracic spine are great places to start. By stretching the pectorals we are going to bring the shoulders back into a less forward and internally rotation position, but also decrease the anterior tilt on the scapula. This will put your upper trap back in the anatomical position it’s meant to be in and create less adhesions from being in a shortened position. Next, we need to create symmetry within the trapezius muscle itself by activating and strengthening the middle and lower traps. 

Below are links to videos educating you on how to correctly stretch your pecs, mobilize your thoracic spine, and strengthen your middle/lower trap.


While most people will get a lot of helpful information from this article, this is just a brief overview of upper cross syndrome. If you’ve had neck and shoulder tightness for a while, you might need a little extra help! Click here to book a FREE Discovery Visit with one of our expert Doctors of Physical Therapy today to discuss how we can get you back to pain free and living your life.
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