Do You Have Numb Fingers From Tight Scalenes?



When a person has forward head posture, their scalene muscles are going to tightens up.  The scalenes are the lateral neck muscles that help you inhale, rotate and flex your head forward. During any given day a person will eventually assume a forward head posture- when they drive their car, sit at their desk, use their smart phone or ipad,  type on their computer, or find themselves listening intently to someone.

This posture can potentially compress the brachial plexus, which is the network of nerves that originate in the neck and feed into the armpit region and down into the arms. A brachial plexus impingement can lead to a number of problems from numbness in the hands, to thoracic outlet syndrome or carpal tunnel-like symptoms.

Anatomy and Function

There are three scalene muscles and they are located between the anterior portion of the trapezius muscle and the sternocleidomastoid (the long thick muscle that attaches from behind your ear down to your sternum and clavicle). Scalenes are sometimes considered an “anatomical Bermuda Triangle”, as they are a difficult muscle group for massage therapists to tackle.

In some massage schools, the teachers warn students to avoid working on the anterior neck because of they could put pressure on the carotid artery.  That wasn’t the case in my schooling at Bancroft School of Massage Therapy.  As professionally trained orthopedic massage therapist, I can quickly and confidently locate and treat tight scalenes.

Scalene Dysfunction

When scalene muscles get tight, they can entrap the brachial plexus and subclavian artery that pass through or around them, resulting in numbness and tingling down that involved extremity. If the anterior and medial scalene become chronically shortened, this can potentially limit the space of the thoracic outlet, resulting in a neurovascular and subclavian artery entrapment.

If the scalenes tighten on one side (unilaterally), you can find yourself with an elevated shoulder. This unilateral shortening can be caused from a leg length discrepancy, whiplash injury, bad sleeping habits, excessive coughing from a cold, swimming, or even from awkwardly lugging large objects around [like that 20 pound purse or murse (man purse)].

Treatment Strategies

One of the most important components to treating tight scalenes is assessing how that person breathes. Abnormal breathing patterns are huge contributor to scalene trigger points. People  should be able to breathe diaphragmatically in sitting, standing and supine positions.

Try the following Diaphragmatic Breathing Exercise:

Place your right hand on your chest and left hand on your abdomen. With your eyes closed, inhale through the nose to a four second count then exhale through the mouth (also to a four second count), allowing the abdomen to relax and retract to the starting position, extending your belly into the left hand. This should be repeated for 30 to 60 seconds every hour throughout the day. Sixty seconds is adequate time to practice this without overly fatiguing the muscles. Diaphragmatic breathing certainly helps reduce the overworking of the scalene muscles and it is a very useful strategy in dealing with scalene trigger points.  Click here for more about diaphragmatic breathing.

Another thing to consider is a postural strain pattern.  If you are glued to your computer all day, or holding babies on a hiked hip or are attached to your cell phone, your body alignment will need to be  addressed.

Postural alignment technique like chin tucking exercises, can also be helpful.

Getting rid of scalene trigger points with Massage: Basic massage techniques like compression and stripping of the scalene muscles can release the trigger points.  Once the scalenes are loosened up, a wide range of upper extremity issues ranging from carpal tunnel syndrome to tennis elbow can be resolved.

Click HERE to learn The 3 Big Mistakes that are Making Your Neck Pain Worse!

Resource: Nicole Nelson, Massage Today

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I had shoulder pain and tight muscles. Morgan eliminated all problems. As a person who has massages regularly, I can say without hesitation that Morgan is superior! His deep tissue massage is both relaxing and therapeutic. I look forward to having his services again.

- J.A.