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  /  Neck   /  Understanding Sternocleidomastoid Muscle Tension

Understanding Sternocleidomastoid Muscle Tension

The human body is a complex network of muscles, tendons, and ligaments working together to support movement and maintain posture. Among these crucial structures is the sternocleidomastoid muscle, often abbreviated as SCM. This bilateral muscle, located in the neck, plays a pivotal role in various head and neck movements. However, when the sternocleidomastoid muscle becomes tense or tight, it can lead to discomfort, pain, and a range of other symptoms.

Anatomy of the Sternocleidomastoid Muscle:

The sternocleidomastoid muscle is named for its attachments to the sternum (sterno), clavicle (cleido), and mastoid process of the temporal bone. It originates from the sternum and the clavicle and inserts into the mastoid process behind the ear. This muscle is divided into two parts: the sternal head and the clavicular head, which join together to form a thick, rounded muscle in the front of the neck.

Causes of Sternocleidomastoid Muscle Tension:

Several factors can contribute to the development of tension or tightness in the sternocleidomastoid muscle:

  1. Poor Posture: Prolonged periods of slouching or maintaining an improper posture can strain the sternocleidomastoid muscle, leading to tension.
  2. Overuse: Activities that require repetitive head movements, such as prolonged computer use or excessive texting, can overwork the sternocleidomastoid muscle, causing it to become tense.
  3. Stress and Anxiety: Emotional stress and anxiety can manifest physically in the body, leading to muscle tension, including the sternocleidomastoid muscle.
  4. Muscle Imbalance: Weakness or imbalance in surrounding muscles, such as the upper back and shoulders, can result in compensatory tightness in the sternocleidomastoid muscle.

Symptoms of Sternocleidomastoid Muscle Tension:

When the sternocleidomastoid muscle becomes tense or tight, individuals may experience the following symptoms:

  1. Neck Pain: A dull, achy pain or discomfort in the neck, typically on one side.
  2. Limited Range of Motion: Difficulty turning the head or tilting it to the affected side.
  3. Headaches: Tension in the sternocleidomastoid muscle can contribute to tension headaches or migraines.
  4. Shoulder Pain: Radiating pain that extends from the neck to the shoulders.


To prevent sternocleidomastoid muscle tension and associated discomfort, consider the following preventive measures:

    1. Regular Exercise: Engage in regular physical activity to strengthen muscles, improve posture, and reduce the risk of muscle imbalances.
    2. Ergonomic Workspace: Set up your workstation ergonomically to promote proper posture and reduce strain on the neck and shoulders.
    3. Hydration and Nutrition: Stay hydrated and maintain a balanced diet rich in nutrients that support muscle health.
    4. Stress Reduction: Find healthy outlets for managing stress and anxiety to prevent physical manifestations of tension in the body.

Physical-Therapy Role :

Physical therapy plays a vital role in managing sternocleidomastoid muscle tension by addressing underlying causes, improving muscle flexibility, and enhancing overall neck function. Let’s explore how physical therapy can be effectively integrated into the treatment plan for sternocleidomastoid muscle tension:

1. Initial Assessment and Diagnosis:

A physical therapist begins by conducting a comprehensive assessment to evaluate the extent of sternocleidomastoid muscle tension and its impact on neck function. This assessment may include:

  • Range of motion tests to assess neck mobility.
  • Palpation to identify areas of muscle tenderness or tightness.
  • Postural analysis to identify contributing factors.
  • Functional tests to assess how muscle tension affects daily activities.

2. Manual Therapy Techniques:

Physical therapists employ various manual therapy techniques to address sternocleidomastoid muscle tension and associated discomfort:

  • Soft Tissue Mobilization: Gentle massage techniques help release tension in the sternocleidomastoid muscle and surrounding tissues.
  • Myofascial Release: Targeted pressure is applied to release tight fascia and improve muscle flexibility.
  • Joint Mobilization: Gentle stretching and mobilization techniques help restore normal joint mechanics in the neck and upper back.

3. Therapeutic Exercises:

A tailored exercise program is designed to stretch, strengthen, and stabilize the muscles supporting the neck and shoulders:

  • Stretching Exercises: Specific stretches targeting the sternocleidomastoid muscle and other neck muscles help alleviate tension and improve flexibility.
  • Strengthening Exercises: Strengthening the muscles of the neck, shoulders, and upper back helps improve posture and reduce strain on the sternocleidomastoid muscle.
  • Postural Correction Exercises: Exercises to promote proper alignment and posture are essential for preventing recurrence of muscle tension.

4. Neuromuscular Reeducation:

Physical therapists use neuromuscular reeducation techniques to improve motor control and movement patterns:

  • Proprioceptive Training: Exercises that challenge balance and coordination help improve proprioception and body awareness.
  • Functional Training: Incorporating functional movements into rehabilitation helps patients transfer improved muscle control to everyday activities.

5. Ergonomic Education:

Educating patients about ergonomic principles and proper body mechanics is crucial for preventing future muscle tension:

  • Workspace Evaluation: Assessing workstations and making ergonomic adjustments to promote neutral posture and reduce strain on the neck.
  • Technique Modification: Teaching proper techniques for activities such as lifting, carrying, and using electronic devices to minimize stress on the neck muscles.

6. Patient Education and Self-Management Strategies:

Empowering patients with knowledge and self-care strategies is integral to long-term success:

  • Pain Management Techniques: Teaching relaxation techniques, stress management strategies, and pain coping skills.
  • Home Exercise Program: Providing patients with a customized home exercise program to continue their rehabilitation and prevent recurrence of muscle tension.
  • Activity Modification: Educating patients about activities or habits that may exacerbate muscle tension and advising on modifications.

Exercises for Relief and Prevention:

The sternocleidomastoid muscle, though small, can wield significant influence over our comfort and mobility when it becomes tense or tight. Incorporating specific exercises into your routine can effectively target this muscle, providing relief from discomfort and helping to prevent future tension. Let’s delve into some detailed exercises that can aid in managing sternocleidomastoid muscle tension:

1. Neck Stretch:

  • Sit or stand with your back straight and shoulders relaxed.
  • Gently tilt your head towards your right shoulder until you feel a stretch along the left side of your neck.
  • Hold the stretch for 15-30 seconds, focusing on maintaining a gentle, steady pull.
  • Return your head to the center and repeat on the opposite side.

2. Chin Tucks:

  • Sit or stand with your spine straight and shoulders relaxed.
  • Slowly draw your chin towards your chest, creating a double chin.
  • Hold this position for 5-10 seconds, feeling the stretch along the back of your neck.
  • Relax and return to the starting position.
  • Repeat for 8-10 repetitions.

3. Sternocleidomastoid Stretch:

  • Sit or stand with your back straight and shoulders relaxed.
  • Rotate your head to the right, bringing your chin towards your right shoulder.
  • Tilt your head slightly backward, aiming to feel a stretch along the left side of your neck.
  • Hold this position for 15-30 seconds, breathing deeply and evenly.
  • Repeat on the opposite side.

4. Scalene Stretch:

  • Sit or stand with your spine tall and shoulders relaxed.
  • Extend your right arm down towards your side, keeping your shoulder relaxed.
  • Reach your left hand over the top of your head, gently grasping the right side of your head.
  • Tilt your head towards your left shoulder while gently pulling your head to the left with your left hand.
  • Hold the stretch for 15-30 seconds, feeling the stretch along the right side of your neck.
  • Repeat on the opposite side.

5. Levator Scapulae Stretch:

  • Sit or stand with good posture, ensuring your spine is straight.
  • Place your right hand behind your back and reach towards your left hip.
  • Tilt your head towards your left shoulder and slightly rotate it downwards.
  • Use your left hand to gently pull your head further towards your left shoulder until you feel a stretch along the right side of your neck.
  • Hold for 15-30 seconds, then switch sides and repeat.

6. Shoulder Rolls:

  • Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your arms relaxed at your sides.
  • Roll your shoulders forward in a circular motion, starting with small circles and gradually increasing the size.
  • After several repetitions, reverse the motion, rolling your shoulders backward.
  • Perform 8-10 repetitions in each direction.

Incorporating these exercises into your daily routine can help alleviate sternocleidomastoid muscle tension, improve flexibility, and promote better posture. Remember to perform each exercise gently and gradually increase the intensity as your muscles become more flexible and relaxed. However, if you experience any pain or discomfort during these exercises, discontinue them and consult with a healthcare professional for further guidance.

By taking proactive steps to care for your neck muscles, you can enhance your overall well-being and reduce the risk of tension-related discomfort in the future. Stay consistent with your exercises and prioritize self-care to enjoy the benefits of a healthy, pain-free neck.


In conclusion, sternocleidomastoid muscle tension can cause significant discomfort and impact daily functioning. By understanding its anatomy, causes, symptoms, and treatment options, individuals can take proactive steps to alleviate tension, improve muscle function, and enhance overall well-being. If symptoms persist or worsen, it’s essential to seek professional medical advice for a comprehensive evaluation and personalized treatment plan.

Remember, taking care of your neck muscles goes a long way in maintaining a healthy and pain-free lifestyle.

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