Miserable Muscle Number Two – The Upper Trapezius, The Stress Holder

Miserable Muscle Number Two – the Upper Trapezius, the Stress Holder

Stress is a major headache trigger

Stress is a major triggers for migraines.  The upper trapezius is one of the primary muscles that holds that stress. It is a large muscle that extends from the top of the shoulder up to its attachment on the head.  One of the movements this muscle performs is to hunch the shoulders.  Put your hand on the top of your shoulder and trace the cords to the neck.  The muscle should be spongy and not tender.  The muscle likely is tight and cordlike, just ready to go into spasm and send more pain to your aching head. The upper trapezius is one of the main headache-producing muscles.

People with stress often will hunch their shoulders.  Some people have been tight in the neck and shoulder muscles for years. They never realized that the tight muscles were a major part of their headache problem the whole time. You may even now have a tight, overactive upper trapezius.  How do you know?  Simply let your shoulder drop.  You may not have even realized the upper trapezius was bringing your shoulder up towards your ear.  Recheck a few minutes later.  Is your shoulder once again creeping up towards your ear?  Drop your shoulder back down and keep doing this until your shoulder gets the message that it is time to stop hunching.

 How can I stretch the upper trapezius muscle?

The purest way to stretch the upper trapezius is a multistep process. To stretch out a tight right upper trapezius;

-Take your right arm, put in behind your back to keep the shoulder from hunching.

-Next, you turn your head to the right.

-You can then bend your head to the left, using your left hand if needed to pull the head downwards to the left.  You will certainly feel a major muscle stretch in your upper trapezius.  However, this method is very awkward, puts a lot of torque on the neck, and can be downright unpleasant.

The “Sheet Stretch” method to stretch the upper trapezius

There is a different method to stretch the upper trapezius that you will find to be much more relaxing. I call the method the Sheet Stretch, so named because it involves you using a bed sheet, generally at least eight feet long, to set up the stretching technique. Try these steps;

-Stand up, then put the sheet behind you and simply sit down on it to anchor it.

-Wrap the sheet around your right shoulder and then wrap it around the opposite left thigh, which you have slightly lifted off the floor. Use your left hand to hold the sheet, NOT the right hand, which should be relaxed in the chair.

-Place your foot on the floor and lean back into your chair.  As you lean back, you will feel the pull of the sheet coming down upon your shoulder.  Some of my clients report it feels as if someone was massaging out their upper shoulder. If you have been hunching your shoulder up without even realizing it, the sheet stretch pulling your abnormally hunched shoulder back down into your natural resting position will feel very pleasant.  Since many family and friends may be reluctant to give you a massage, you will benefit by using the sheet to provide your own self-massage.

-What if you don’t feel much of anything happening, no pull occurring? Not to worry.  Simply re-wrap your thigh, lift it a bit higher,  and then place your left foot on the ground again, which will certainly increase the pull.

-Still not enough pull? Bring your left leg out sideways to the left, away from the chair you are sitting in.  This last maneuver will certainly produce the stretch you will find helpful.

This “Sheet Stretch” is awkward when you first attempt it, but you will reap the rewards when you watch your neck flexibility increase as your headache decreases.  I described the right upper trapezius stretch first, as most people are right-side dominant, with a greater likelihood for tightness on that side. You should stretch out your left side as well for balance.

You don’t even need to move out of your chair.  Simply lift the sheet from right to left and reverse the process.  The sheet is now wrapped around the right leg, the right hand anchors the sheet while the left arm relaxes, and the leg is moved outward to the right (foot on the ground) in order to locate just the right amount of stretch.  Your head is rotated left and side-bent to the right to stretch the left upper trapezius..

You can make the sheet have a narrow focus by wrapping it in a narrow band on the shoulder.  You can alternately spread the sheet into a cup around the entire shoulder which may feel more “cozy.”  Usually five to ten minutes is enough to achieve some awesome stretches to the upper trapezius as well as other neck muscles.

When should I not use the “Sheet Stretch”

When should you not use the sheet stretch? Stop the Sheet Stretch if you feel any sensations of tingling or numbness going into the arm that the sheet is wrapped around.  These symptoms would mean you are not stretching the shoulder and neck muscles as intended, but you are instead putting pressure on the nerves going into the arm.  Sharp pain is also a reason to stop this technique immediately. If you do not feel a soothing, comfortable stretch no matter how you adjust the sheet, discontinue your efforts. You should not have to struggle to get a good, relaxing stretch if the technique is right for you.

One of my clients recently said, “I can’t believe something so simple can provide so much relief.” The Sheet Stretch technique is a winner for many of my clients. I hope that you can benefit with this method in the battle to take control of your headache.



-You understand that if not done properly, some techniques and exercises described in this blog could harm you. Any activities you perform are at your own risk, and you expressly agree to waive any claims against the author for any harm that may arise from your own actions. By reading this blog and conducting these exercises, you accept this risk. This blog provides content related to physical and/or mental health issues. As such, your use of techniques described acts as your acceptance of this disclaimer. Consult Chapter 2 in my book, “Calming the Headache Storm” to make sure the headache is not the sign of a more serious problem. The techniques, advice and strategies contained in this blog may not be suitable for every individual and should be abandoned if your headache increases. Seek the advice of your physician.


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