Best Treatment and Exercises to Manage Trapezius Pain, According to Physical Therapists
Pain in your upper back or shoulders may be related to your trapezius. Learn more about the causes and exercises to address it.
Whether your days are filled with back-to-back meetings, driving around, house projects, or some level of repetitive manual labor, there’s a fair chance you’ve experienced trapezius pain at some point. You may just not have known it was your trapezius that was ailing you. The trapezius is a large back muscle that looks like a trapezoid. It starts at the base of your neck, extends across your shoulders, and then goes down to the middle of your back.
You can experience trapezius pain for a lot of different reasons. But whether it’s something that bothers you regularly or on occasion, there are some relatively simple measures — most notably exercises — that can help you prevent and manage trapezius pain, says Cody Anderson, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health.
Here, we’ll take a closer look at why you might experience trapezius pain and, more importantly, exercises you can do to prevent it from interfering with doing what you love.
Our Hinge Health Experts
Cody Anderson, PT, DPT
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
What Is the Trapezius, Exactly?
Commonly known as the “traps,” the trapezius is a large muscle located in the upper back and neck region. The wider end that’s positioned at the top of the muscle combined with the narrower end at the bottom gives it its trapezoidal shape.
The trapezius muscle is involved in a lot of different motions you do, such as shrugging your shoulders (and moving your shoulders in general), sitting up straight, tilting your head up and down, and twisting your torso. It also controls your shoulder blades so that you can lift your arm or throw a ball.
There are three main parts of the trapezius muscle. Although these sections are distinct from one another, they all work together to stabilize the shoulder girdle and help you perform various movements.
The upper trapezius is the part of the muscle that starts at the base of your neck and extends across the tops of your shoulders. It helps you lift your arms, move your neck and head, and shrug your shoulders.
The middle trapezius goes across your shoulders. It helps you pull your shoulders back and helps you stabilize your shoulders when you move your arms.
The lower trapezius starts around your shoulder blades and forms a “V” down the middle of your back. It allows you to bring your shoulders down and stabilizes your spine when you twist and bend.
Why Does My Trapezius Hurt?
There are a few factors that can contribute to trapezius pain, including:
Hunching over for too long while sitting. As Hinge Health physical therapists always say, there’s no such thing as perfect posture. But staying in any position for too long can contribute to joint and muscle pain. “For example, if you’re stuck in a position where your shoulders are elevated (like hunching over a keyboard), you’ll have to use your traps for a long time,” explains Dr. Anderson. This can cause pain all along your trapezius muscle — especially the upper part — if you don’t get a break. A 2023 study published in the journal Applied Ergonomics found that people who work at a computer are more prone to this since it’s easy to forget to move around or take breaks from your work. The good news is that frequent movement snacks are very effective in preventing and treating upper back pain.
Muscle strain. “The trapezius provides stability to the upper back and neck, so some activities put more pressure on it, like lifting or push-pulling motions,” says Dr. Anderson. That’s not to say that these movements are bad or dangerous. But if you do more than your body is prepared for, it’s possible to overdo it. If you spend a lot of time lifting or carrying heavy objects, or you do an activity that involves reaching your arm forward (such as cleaning a window), be sure and listen to your body. If you’re experiencing a pain flare or discomfort in your trapezius region, you may want to take a few breaks or lighten the load you’re moving to prevent a muscle strain or injury, says Dr. Anderson.
Stress. Research shows that trapezius muscle activity increases during stressful situations. “We carry stress in our shoulders, which can put an extra burden on the trapezius,” says Dr. Anderson. Stress can also decrease your tolerance to pain, Dr. Anderson notes, so you may be more likely to notice — and be bothered by — trapezius pain if you’re under a lot of stress.
Stretches and Exercises for Trapezius Pain
Now for the important question: How do you relieve trapezius pain? Most of the time, it can be treated with simple stretching and strengthening exercises. There are a variety of different trapezius exercises you can do to strengthen the muscle, improve range of motion, and loosen it up, says Dr. Anderson. Above are some favorites from Hinge Health physical therapists that can help.
The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.
Physical Therapy for Trapezius Pain
If you have persistent trapezius pain and stiffness, a short course of physical therapy may provide the pain relief you need. “A physical therapist can do a full assessment to check for muscle, tendon, and ligament tightness and weakness, and also to see if you have any lifestyle factors present that may be contributing to your pain,” explains Dr. Anderson.
They can also work with you to find modifications for certain movements in your life that can decrease your trapezius pain and allow you to get back to the activities that you want to do, Dr. Anderson adds. You can see a physical therapist in person or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via telehealth/video visit.
PT Tip: Do a Reset
Do you get trapezius pain when you sit at your desk? Every thirty minutes, take a break and pull your shoulder blades back and down. Make sure that you lift your shoulders all the way to your ears and push your shoulder blades all the way down to get the greatest relief. “That will help stretch out your trapezius muscle so it doesn’t stiffen up while you’re sitting still,” says Dr. Anderson.
Learn More About Hinge Health for Pain Relief
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This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.
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Steffan Wittrup Christensen, Thorvaldur Skuli Palsson, Hans Jørgen Krebs, Graven-Nielsen, T., & Rogerio Pessoto Hirata. (2023). Prolonged slumped sitting causes neck pain and increased axioscapular muscle activity during a computer task in healthy participants – A randomized crossover study. Applied Ergonomics, 110, 104020–104020. doi:10.1016/j.apergo.2023.104020
Luijcks, R., Vossen, C. J., Roggeveen, S., van Os, J., Hermens, H. J., & Lousberg, R. (2016). Impact of early life adversity on EMG stress reactivity of the trapezius muscle. Medicine, 95(39), e4745. doi:10.1097/md.0000000000004745
Ourieff, J., & Amit Agarwal. (2018, December 6). Anatomy, Back, Trapezius. National Institute of Health. StatPearls Publishing. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK518994/
Trapezius Muscle. (2021, June 3). Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/body/21563-trapezius-muscle#:~:text=The%20trapezius%20is%20a%20muscle,%2C%20arms%2C%20shoulders%20and%20torso.