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What is the Levator Scapulae?

By Shelby Miller
Updated May 17, 2024
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The levator scapulae is an upper-back muscle that runs along the side of the neck. Its primary responsibility is to assist the trapezius, the largest and most superficial muscle of the upper back, in shrugging the shoulders. Latin in origin, its name means “elevator of the shoulder blades,” and this muscle is likewise responsible for pulling upward on the inside or medial edge of the scapulae.

Situated beneath the trapezius in the upper back, alongside the splenius capitus muscle in the back of the neck, the levator scapulae originates along the spinous processes, sideways protrusions of the first four cervical vertebrae. It then runs vertically down the side of the neck to attach to the upper medial edge of the shoulder blade. This narrow, band-shaped muscle is relatively small, much smaller than the large trapezius muscle, but it performs several complex functions involving the neck, head, and shoulder blades.

One such action of the levator scapulae muscle involves a specific movement of the neck. When the shoulder is in a fixed or unmoving position, the levator scapulae tilts the head sideways toward the shoulder on the same side as the muscle and then rotates the neck so that the head turns toward that shoulder. An example of this movement can be seen in an office worker who frequently refers to a document while typing on a computer. Every time that person glances down from the monitor to a document placed on the desk alongside the keyboard, he engages the levator scapulae to move the head and neck.

In fact, this particular action can lead to repetitive stress injury (RSI) in the levator scapulae and surrounding neck muscles, especially if the movement is always done to the same side. An RSI can present as a strained muscle or as trigger points, or knots, which can become quite painful if the muscle never has a chance to relax. Daily stretches to release the muscle are often recommended for anyone who sits in front of a computer for long hours and can be performed right at one’s desk.

To stretch the levator scapulae, the right hand should be placed on top of the head and the left hand should be positioned at one’s side or behind the back, so that the left shoulder blade is pulled down and back. With the right hand, the head should gently be pulled down and to the right, with the neck rotated so that the nose points toward the right shoulder. The stretch will be felt on the left side of the neck. This stretch should be held for 20-30 seconds and repeated on the opposite side; desk workers should perform this stretch several times daily.

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