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By Matthew Snow, Licensed Massage Therapist

All you really need to find relief from neck and upper back tension that results from postural stress or overwork is a tennis ball and a map of where to go.

 Here are the best muscles to target for instant relief of neck and upper back tension.  But before you begin here are a few things to know.

As you begin you may feel bumps or rope like tissue and they may be sore.  Don’t be afraid of them.  They are your muscles.  You can tell what muscle you are on depending on the orientation of the rope like band.









You can use any technique.  You can use a circular motion, you can go across the muscle, or you can hold the pressure.  Using the tennis ball with a sock against a wall helps for easier placement of  the tennis ball .  The most important thing is being specific to the muscle.


neck-circles-massage     neck-massage-back-and-forth    sock


The Lower Trapezius: My Favorite Muscle


woman-lower-trapThe lower trapezius is my favorite muscle because it is a major source of upper and mid back pain but often is overlooked by massage therapists and most credit for tension between the shoulder blades is given to the rhomboids.

This muscle can be difficult to self massage on yourself because it is on a diagonal.  To find this muscle take your tennis ball and roll it down the edge of your shoulder blade.  It will be about halfway down the blade.  Once you find the ropy band that feels like it is diagonal across your back you can roll across the band, use circular motions on it, or just hold the pressure.





The Rhomboids: The Most Famous Upper Back Muscle

woman-rhomboidThe rhomboids are easier to find as they occupy much of the space between the the shoulder blade and attach almost entirely to the border of the shoulder blade.  To find this muscle just roll your tennis ball along the border of your shoulder blade.  Once you find it you can follow the fibers as close to the spine as you can without pressing on the spine.









Levator Scapulae: That’s Like Elevator and Pronounced Scapulee

womanlaterallevatorYou know that big knot on the top of your shoulder blade?  You’ve probably been told it’s your upper trapezius but it’s really probably your levator scapulae. The levator scapulae attaches from the top of the shoulder and travels up the side of the neck just under the base of the skull directly under the ear.

With the levator scapulae it is really important to work the center of the muscle.  This is where a lot of the tension builds up in the muscle.  It’s good to work that knot at the top of the shoulder too but don’t spend all your time there.

When I work on this muscle I like to press firmly on the side of the neck and use a back and forth motion. It feels really good after being on the computer for hours or a long day of giving massage.






The Upper Trapezius and Splenius Capitis

uppertrapmanTwo totally different muscles but I lumped them together for self massage purposes.  The upper trapezius attachment is more at the center of the base of the head and as you travel across the base of the head toward the ear you will hit the splenius capitis.

If you massage the entire back of the neck with your tennis ball you will get both of these muscles.

To massage the upper trapezius at the shoulder just take the fold of the muscle between your fingers.  This is a really good place to massage.







The Erector Spinae

The erector spinae attach erectorspinea3all the way from the pelvis, the ribs, and up to the head.  For now,  we’ll just focus on the erector spinae as they travel through the mid and upper back.

These muscles are easy to find. They are the big, ropy mass that travels parallel to the spine.  And they extend  halfway to the ribs on the back. The outer most part of the erector spinae is very thin and can be difficult to find but can be very tender when you do find it.

Once you find them, I like to roll up and down the muscle. You can also just hold the pressure which also feels really good. Going across the fibers also feels really good too.



An Extra Bonus to Your Muscles

For extra bang for your time using heat will really loosen and warm up your muscles. You can get a microwavable heat pad and use it before and after self massage.  It will warm up the muscles and increase circulation which will help with tension.

I recommend  working on each muscle for 1-2 minutes.  You can spend more time if you like.  Some areas you may not feel are sore or tight.  Feel what areas are tight and spend your time there.

Using this routine and focusing on these muscles is really good after long hours of being hunched over at a computer, blasting these muscles after a workout,  or if you have chronic tension in your neck and upper back.

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  Matthew Snow is a Licensed Massage Therapist practicing in Greenwich, CT. If you would like schedule or make an appointment call (203) 660-0584 or email