Our Muscle of the Month blog today features the scalenes, a muscle group found in the neck.
Comprising three muscles – anterior, medial and posterior – in two sets, one either side of the body, they support the top of the spine (cervical spine). They can be affected by whiplash injuries, conditions that cause respiratory problems and poor posture.
Scalenes can be prone to tension; however, good posture, sports massage, physiotherapy and specific exercises can help alleviate tightness in these muscles.
The origination and insertion of the scalenes
Located on either side of the throat, the three pairs of scalenes together form a section of the floor of the posterior triangle of the neck.
They originate from the neck vertebrae and insert into the ribs, as follows:
Anterior scalene – originates in the anterior tubercles of the transverse processes of the C3-C6 vertebrae and inserts into the scalene tubercle of the first rib
Medial scalene – originates in the posterior tubercles of the transverse processes of the C2-C7 vertebrae and inserts into the upper surface of the first rib
Posterior scalene – originates in the posterior tubercles of the transverse process of the C5-C7 vertebrae and inserts into the lateral surface of the second rib
The action and basic functional movement of the scalenes
Used for flexing, tilting and laterally bending the neck, the scalenes support the upright posture of the cervical spine. They also elevate the first and second ribs during respiration.
Problems arising from tight or damaged scalenes
There are several issues that can cause the scalenes to not perform as they should.
The scalenes are particularly prone to tension, and taking too many shallow, upper-respiratory breaths can cause tight scalenes, leading to headaches and neck pain.
Whiplash caused by a car accident or other violent jolt to the neck and body can inhibit the movement of the scalenes and therefore the neck.
Tension in the scalenes can be related to more severe medical issues such as:
- Thoracic Outlet Syndrome (TOS) – pain in the neck and shoulders, and numb fingers, caused by accident, sports injury, pregnancy or anatomical defect, with treatment including physical therapy and surgery.
- Torticollis – when contracted neck muscles cause a twisted neck and tilted head, which can be congenital or caused by things such as a viral infection or trauma to the neck; treatment includes medication, physiotherapy, exercises or surgery.
- Dowager’s hump – curvature of the upper back, often a sign of osteoporosis or caused by bad posture, can be alleviated by massage.
Common exercises for the scalenes
While trauma to the scalenes should be analysed by a medical professional, some problems, including tension in the scalenes, can be helped by treatment such as myofascial release massage carried out by a qualified sports massage therapist.
Carrying out the right stretching exercises under the supervision of a personal trainer or fitness instructor and following stretching classes such as yoga can also contribute to healthy, fully functional scalenes. Yoga can also involve deep breathing, which releases tension in the neck.
Other preventative measures include good posture, in particular correct posture when seated or lifting heavy objects. Anyone working at a desk should ensure that they have a supportive, adjustable chair and a correctly set up workstation; also that they take regular breaks.
Exercises for the scalenes include:
- Yoga, Pilates, Tai Chi
- Thoracic spine stretches
- Standing, seated or lying head turn and head tilt
- Standing, seated or lying neck retraction
- Prone or supine head lifts
- Scapular retraction
A fitness professional can also advise on specific strength training exercises that can be both preventative and curative.
The scalenes are often neglected but they are essential for supporting the head and allowing movement of the neck. Exercise, massage and correct posture can prevent tightness and other issues down the line.