Over the next few days I will be identifying the 4 main headache monsters of the muscular system and teaching you safe ways to find relief.
Sternocleidomastoid Muscle (SCM).
Do not be deterred by the long-winded name! When I first began studying Anatomy in 2004 I too thought that our muscles sounded like a species of dinosaur. In fact, the names are well reasoned and usually indicate the location, shape or movement pattern.
How to find it…
This sneaky two-parted muscle begins at the skull behind the ear. From there, the sternal division (pictured at the right) attaches to the sternum or breastbone, and the clavicular division attaches to the clavicle or collarbone.
SCM is such an interesting muscle. Many are unaware of its effects as it rarely presents with pain over the muscle itself. However, this seemingly innocent muscle causes significant and widespread pain mostly in the form of headaches and facial pain. Less common symptoms are dizziness, blurred vision and hearing disturbances!
Do you get frequent and unexplained headaches?
Do you work at a desk, staring at a computer screen contemplating exciting ideas, crunching numbers or tirelessly grazing the Facebook world for a substantial portion of your day?
Or have you experienced whiplash trauma? If the above fits, minus the exact context, then it may interest you to read on as we delve into more specific details of the pain patterns and effects of this fabulous muscle.
The Sternal division.
Find your little collarbone notch below your throat on your left side, just above that you will feel a little band of muscle, now turn your head to the right and this band will pop out at you. This band all the way up to your ear holds trigger points that, when active, refer pain to the attachment area at the top of the sternum and most commonly deep in the eye and above and below the eye – it can imitate the feeling of sinus congestion or inflammation.
If this division is especially angry you may also present with a sore throat and pain at the back of the tongue, particularly with swallowing. It can send pain to the chin, back of the head along the occiput and to the crown of the head.
The Clavicular division.
The clavicular division is a little more difficult to feel – from the collarbone notch it’s about an inch further along the collarbone towards the same side shoulder. Trigger points in this part send pain to the forehead – when it is severe it can spread to the other side, which is quite unusual. The upper part of the muscle can create pain deep in the ear and behind the ear. It can also create an ache in the cheek and molars on the same side of the face.
More bizarre effects of this muscle – Dizziness, Deafness and Droopiness!
I rarely see clients that present with these symptoms, which leads me to believe that they’re simply less common. My alternative theory is that people put these severities down to migraines, or more serious illness that they temper with drugs instead of bodywork.
Dizziness and Balance Problems
This is a feeling of unsteadiness, and less often as a spinning sensation. You may veer unintentionally to one side when walking, or feel like you will fall backwards when you look up. According to some case studies sudden stretching of this muscle can actually cause fainting.
How and why?! The SCM signals the brain about the orientation of the head in relation to the body, so when there are active trigger points in this branch of the SCM, faulty information is sent out, confusing the brain and creating dizziness.
Visual and Eye Disturbances.
Symptoms include tearing and reddening on the same side eye, twitching or drooping of the eyelid, blurred vision, dimming of perceived light intensity and double vision.
“How?” I hear you ask. Effects on the eye are indirectly related to the SCM and are caused by its effects on the muscles around the eye. For example: A common sign therapists observe when treating a trigger point is twitching in nearby muscles, it’s actually one of the indications that we are on a hot spot. Trigger points in the SCM can cause spasm of the Orbicularis Oculi Muscle, the main muscle around the eye that enables us to blink.
The sternal division can create disturbances in hearing. Symptoms can include deafness or hearing a crackling sound. It appears to be related to its effects on the masseter muscle in the jaw, which is our main chewing muscle.
Massage of this muscle is very effective – thank goodness!
1. To feel the muscle turn your head to the opposite side you are treating and you will feel and see the SCM pop out.
2. Take the muscle back to a relaxed state – you may want to lie on your back so your neck muscles are relaxed.
3. Try to feel the two divisions: they lie on top of one another. If you grab as much soft tissue as you can, you should be pinching the clavicular division, which is the deeper of the two. Then roll off of it, and you will be pinching the sternal division.
4. Start near the collarbone and work up toward the skull behind your ear, rolling and pinching the muscle between your thumb and index finger. If you get to a painful spot or a spot that refers pain into your problem areas then pause there, hold the pressure and focus on relaxing through that area, when you feel the pain subsiding release and move onto the next spot.
If you feel a pulse under your fingers at any time you are pressing on the carotid artery, simply let go and try again without the artery. Do not continue to hold pressure if you feel a pulse.
It is very important to be careful when pressing on the point underneath the ear, do not use too much pressure here because of a delicate attachment point called the mastoid process. If in doubt it is best to see a professional – a qualified masseuse or physiotherapist.. like me!