The sternocleidomastoid muscle, commonly referred to as the SCM for short, is a muscle on the front of your neck. While it is quite prominent, many people do not realize it is there or how important it is to your daily life.
What is it
The sternocleidomastoid muscle connects the sternum (breast bone) to the clavicle (collar bone) to the mastoid process of your skull (which is just behind your ear). These boney attachment points are how the sternocleidomastoid muscle got its name. It is innervated by cranial nerve XI and a few nerves from the cervical plexus of your spinal column. It is one of a few muscles innervated by a cranial nerve.
What it does
The SCM has three actions. If both your right and left SCM flex, it brings your head forward and down, as if you were nodding “yes” (flexion). If only one SCM contracts, it turns your head as if you were checking your blind spot while driving (rotation) or it brings your ear to your shoulder like you would if you were holding your phone between your shoulder and your head (lateral flexion). It can also help you breathe by lifting your sternum when you are inhaling sharply.
Place your hand on the front of your neck and then turn your head as if you are checking your blind spot. The SCM is the “rope” that jumps into your hand when you turn your head.
Why Is It Important to You
The SCM is one of the muscles commonly affected in a whiplash injury. Additionally, chronically tight SCMs can cause a variety of problems. You may be experiencing some of these problems yourself and not know it as it has become a baseline normal for you.
The SCM is one of the main muscles contributing to forward head posture. Forward head posture can create a variety of issues, including balance problems, dizziness, limited range of motion, digestive complaints, and breathing complaints. Start self massaging your SCMs multiple times daily and consult a physical therapist to help you get your head back on top of your shoulders.
Trigger points (places where the muscle fibers are bunched and knotted), can cause referral pain, which is pain felt somewhere other than the muscle itself. The referral pain patterns of the SCM are wide and varied and some examples are listed below. Interestingly, referral pain of the SCM can sometimes mimic other pathologies–vertigo, Meniere’s disease (disorder of the inner ear), motion sickness, and torticollis (asymmetrical head or neck position).
I often see SCM related headaches and migraines in my massage practice. Pain can radiate across the forehead, around the eye, around the ear, and along the back bottom edge of your skull. If I start to feel a headache, the very first thing I do is drink water, and then self massage my SCMs.
SCM referral pain can mimic an earache. The referral pain can also create a decreased ability to hear. Interestingly, chronically tight SCMs can also create an itch deep inside of your ear.
Another side effect of trigger points within in the SCM could be uncontrolled lacrimation (uncontrolled tearing). Additionally, muscles of the eye can be affected by trigger points in the SCM. The muscles surrounding your eye can twitch, and your vision can be affected.
The SCM can create other systemic symptoms that can be very hard to trace to this muscle. Tooth ache and general facial pain, nausea, sore throat when swallowing, and a dry cough can all be symptoms of trigger points or chronically tight SCM muscles.
SCM Self Massage
Massaging your SCM should be a daily activity, even if you don’t currently have SCM referral pain or symptoms. If you do have any of the above symptoms or you have forward head posture, you should be massaging your SCM multiple times daily. I like to massage my SCM while I am waiting at red lights because it reminds me to adjust my posture and helps me to sit in the car properly.
To self massage your SCM, just turn your head slightly away from the SCM you want to massage and then tip your head slightly towards the same side of the SCM. This will pop the SCM out and you can grab and pinch. Hold for about 5-10 seconds, and then repeat all along the muscle. If you are feeling really adventurous, you can pinch and then move your hand up and down along the muscle while maintaining the pinch. If it hurts, it likely means that a) you are doing the self massage action correctly and b) that you need more massage on your SCM. However, if you have concerns about the pain, consult your doctor.
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