Massaging the upper traps

I’m going to begin sharing some thoughts from doing massage…

The trapezius is an interesting muscle. It’s big, shaped like a kite (a trapezoid), covers a large area of the back from T12 up and out to the shoulders, and then attaches to the back of the skull.

Unlike a bicep, the belly of the trapezius is not in the middle of the muscle. The belly is in the soft part of the shoulder, between the shoulder joint and the neck. This part is nicknamed the upper trap. The rest of the muscle is rather flat.


The upper traps hold a lot of tension on most people’s bodies. It’s rare to work on someone who doesn’t have tightness there. Often the upper trap is overdeveloped or unevenly developed. Usually one side is worse than the other (and it’s often but not always related to handedness).

Now, I could be wrong about this, but it seems to me that a lot of why this muscle is such a problem is because many of us work with our hands out in front of our torsos, and that muscle supports those lifted arms. I notice it on people who use a keyboard a lot. Also hairdressers, chefs, pianists, an interpreter for the deaf. Hands out in front, right?

Oh, yeah, and massage therapists.

When I do Swedish massage, I love working on the shoulders. My favorite part is the testing I do when I finish working on the first shoulder. I give both upper traps a gentle squeeze. I can really tell the difference between the shoulder that’s been massaged and the one that hasn’t. The upper trap that’s been massaged has tissue that feels lean and pliable, like a racehorse ready for a race. It seems to sparkle with energy.

The upper trap not worked on feels stiffer, more swollen, and congested.

That’s the difference that massage makes.

When I do Ashiatsu barefoot massage, I do a lot of work on the shoulders with my feet, both seated behind the client’s head and standing on the table. It makes a big difference. If you haven’t had Ashiatsu, you might be amazed at how I can work the shoulders with my feet. Loosening the shoulder blade, working the between-the-shoulder-blade area, pressing into the upper trap…

If a client needs extra attention to their shoulders (and we have time for it), after I finish the Ashiatsu, I manually work on the shoulders. Kneading is something I can do with my hands that I can’t do with my feet. Sometimes that’s the main thing the upper trap needs, to be kneaded repeatedly to really get the blood flowing throughout the upper traps. It’s that squeezing out of stale blood so it can be replaced by fresh blood bringing oxygen that changes the quality of the muscle tissue, at least in my understanding.

Wondering what to do about upper trap pain in between massages? One remedy available for office workers is to sit in a chair with arm rests that support your forearms comfortably while you use your keyboard. If you don’t use the existing armrests, then it’s not comfortable. Find out if you can adjust them to become comfortable.

That will take some of the load off the upper traps.

Also, even though putting heat on sore muscles feels good, ice is better. Too much heat for too long makes the tissue feel sluggish. If you feel like you just gotta use heat, alternate heat and cold, doing no more than 5 minutes of each. That will get your circulation going.

Don’t forget, there’s always arnica and epsom salt!

Coming soon: the levator scapula. Many people with upper trap issues also have levator scapula issues.

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