Do you experience neck pain at work? Does your neck feel stiff or achy when you wake up in the morning? Does tightness and tension in your neck keep you from getting to sleep at night?
If “yes” is the answer to any of these, then you could benefit from stretching your Sternocleidomastoid–the major neck muscle that is prone to tightness and strain.
It’s often filled with trigger points in people with neck tightness, headaches, stiffness or pain.
Without addressing the tightness in your Sternocleidomastoid muscle, your neck problems can only get worse.
Not only that, but a tight Sternocleidomastoid can even leave you prone to developing forward head posture.
If this sounds like you, and you want to learn how to stretch out this muscle to improve your head posture and increase mobility then keep reading.
What Is the Sternocleidomastoid?
The sternocleidomastoid is a muscle located on either side of your neck, and it plays a role in facilitating virtually all neck movements.
It shortens and lengthens as you tilt your head side to side, nod up and down and look side to side.
It also stabilizes your head as you walk and perform other physical tasks.
The muscle begins at the base of your skull (Mastoid bone), behind your ear on either side and extends downward all the way to the top of your collar bone (Sternum and Clavicle), on each side.
Forward Head Posture
So how does a tight Sternocleidomastoid lead to forward head posture?
In a forward head posture, your neck holds your head out in front of your torso instead of your head aligning directly over your shoulders.
People more prone to developing this posture are people with thoracic kyphosis (hunchback) which is an excessively curved upper back.
Others who develop it are those who crane their neck for hours a day at a laptop, mobile device or computer desk, or even at the driver’s wheel.
The problem is, is that when you hold your head in these positions for long periods of time, the muscles begin to adapt to these new positions.
When your muscles get used to holding your head in a forward position, they start to stay that way, and even the shape of your spine may become retrained over time.
In a forward head posture, your Sternocleidomastoid muscle is in a shortened and tight position. This keeps your head pulled downwards and forward.
If you want to fix forward head posture you need to gradually lengthen the Sternocleidomastoid by frequent stretching and releasing trigger points.
Benefits of Stretching Your Sternocleidomastoid
Stretching the Sternocleidomastoid muscles in the front and sides of your neck has far reaching benefits for the body.
Beyond its protective and healing effects on physical health, it also enhances your mood and improves brain function.
Here are some more benefits of stretching out this important muscle.
Improves Your Posture
Stretching your Sternocleidomastoid muscles on a regular basis when you have forward head posture can reverse the misalignment.
Forward head posture rarely exists in isolation from other postural problems. By stretching your Sternocleidomastoid and bringing your head back into alignment with your torso.
Fights Neck Pain
Neck pain caused by a strained Sternocleidomastoid muscle can be relieved with stretching and self-massage, or myofascial release.
When the tightness is relieved, neck pain is typically received either instantly or by the next morning when you wake up.
With a consistent neck stretching routine, you can keep neck pain at bay by preventing tightness and relieving strain before it worsens.
Relieves Stiffness and Improves Range of Motion
Stretching gives muscle fibres the chance to lengthen out after being contracted and shortened.
If you have forward head posture, your Sternocleidomastoid muscles contract to help hold the weight of your head in a forward position.
Stretching lengthens the neck muscles so your head can have a greater range of motion. It also loosens the tension, relieving stiffness that causes discomfort.
Boosts Blood Supply to the Brain
Stretching muscle tissue allows its fibres to absorb fresh oxygen and nutrients from the bloodstream.
Excessive tightness in your neck muscles, such as in your Sternocleidomastoid, can affect your brain’s function, in turn affecting your mood and cognitive performance.
By opening up the muscle tissues and stimulating better blood flow, stretching your Sternocleidomastoid muscles helps power the brain with oxygen and nutrients.
This can go a long way in reducing your risk for strokes, which can happen when there’s a lack of adequate blood supply to the brain.
How Do You Know if Your Sternocleidomastoid is Tight?
Pain and stiff tension in the neck are tell-tale signs your Sternocleidomastoid muscle is too tight. Headaches and jaw pain are also common symptoms.
If you have poor posture or you crane your neck when using mobile devices, or if you spend hours a day at a laptop or desk, your chances for neck tightness are high.
The most common way the Sternocleidomastoid muscle in your neck becomes shortened is when your head is always in a “text neck” position, better known as forward head posture.
Tests for Neck Tightness
There are a few tests you can perform to tell whether your neck is excessively tight and shortened.
If any of these tests tell you your neck is tight, then you know you need to release the Sternocleidomastoid muscle and stretch it.
- Feel along the length of your Sternocleidomastoid on either side, pinching it gently to feel for any trigger points. Trigger points are isolated areas that feel more painful or sensitive when pressed, and they’re a sign that the tissue fibres are knotted and taut.
- Turn your head left and right. If your movement is limited or if it’s painful to achieve, Sternocleidomastoid tightness could be the reason.
- Stretch your head up and then down to stretch the front and back of your neck. If the range of motion is limited, it’s a sign your Sternocleidomastoid is shortened and needs to be stretched.
How to Create Length in Your Sternocleidomastoid
The best way to stretch out this muscle is by first performing myofascial release to remove any trigger points that are causing chronic tightness. This is then followed by stretch techniques to create more length.
These processes are not something you do only once. You will need to perform these regularly especially if you never take the time out to stretch your neck.
1. Myofascial Release for Your Sternocleidomastoid
Myofascial release is the releasing of trigger points in the fascia around your muscles, which is the thin layer of connective tissue that keeps muscles separate from bones and other muscles.
The fibres in the fascia get tight and knotted just as much or more than the muscle tissue beneath the fascia. If you have trigger points in your neck, chances are, many of those trigger points are actually in the fascia layer of tissue, and could benefit from myofascial release.
Myofascial release is typically done using self-massage tools like foam rollers and massage balls, which work by compressing the fascia and kneading it to release trigger points.
To release the fascia around your Sternocleidomastoid muscle, you can use a massage ball or your hand.
1. Massage Ball Sternocleidomastoid Release
You can use a massage ball to massage your Sternocleidomastoid either standing up or lying down on your front. The video above shows the lying down version.
- Lay face-down on a mat and place a rolled-up yoga mat or towel under your right armpit.
- Put your massage ball on top of the rolled mat or towel so that the ball is directly under your Sternocleidomastoid neck muscle on the right side of your neck.
- Slowly tilt your head up and down and side to side to massage the fibres of the muscle and apply pressure to trigger points.
2. Sternocleidomastoid Massage Release by Hand
If you don’t have a massage ball, the video above shows you how to release the Sternocleidomastoid using just your hand.
- Locate your Sternocleidomastoid muscle on one side of your neck where it starts at the base of your collar bone. To find it, turn your head sideways in the opposite direction of the side you’re locating, and feel for the band-like muscle running the length of your neck that sticks out.
- Starting from the bottom at your collar bone, slowly work your hand up the muscle, gently pinching the band and feeling for trigger points.
- When you discover a trigger point, simply apply pressure with your fingers or squeeze the muscle. This releases the trigger point, and you can tell because you should feel an immediate release of tension and tightness after you let go of the pressure.
- Repeat on the opposite side.
2. How to Stretch Your Sternocleidomastoid
Your Sternocleidomastoid is a thick, band-like muscle, and stretching it through different neck stretches and doing many repetitions ensures you release the tension and lengthen the muscle.
It’s also not the easiest muscle to stretch given the unique way it attaches itself to two different parts of the body so it may take time to learn how to stretch it out.
Here are 3 stretches you can do to stretch your Sternocleidomastoid:
1. 30-Degree Rotation Side Stretch
- Sitting up tall in a chair, look 30 degrees to your right
- Lift your right arm and use it to gently pull and tilt your head until you feel a stretch in your neck
- Hold for 10 seconds, then slowly switch sides
2. Neck Rotations
- Sit upright in a chair or standing up, with your shoulders relaxing downwards and your neck long
- Turn your head to the right and look over your right shoulder as far as you can. You can also use your hand to guide your head.
- Return to centre and do the same on the left side
- Continue for 10 reps on each side
3. Head Tilts
- Sit up tall, with your shoulders relaxed downwards
- Slowly drop your head to your right shoulder, stretching the left side of your neck
- Apply a small amount of pressure to the left side of your head so that you feel the stretch deeper
- Hold for 10 seconds and return to the centre
- Do the same on the left side
- Repeat for 10 reps on each side
Taking Care of Your Neck and Preventing Neck Issues
The alignment of your neck and head is part of the alignment of your overall spine, and postural problems affecting your spine can cause serious problems.
When spinal disks are under excessive stress because of excessive spinal curvature, it raises your risk for problems like slipped disks and degenerative disk disease.
You also want to take care of your neck and prevent muscle tension before it becomes a source of chronic muscular pain.
Stretching your Sternocleidomastoid muscle regularly can help prevent forward head posture so that it doesn’t become a source of pain and health problems.
If you notice tightness start to come back, stay ahead of it with self-massage and trigger point release.
Another important aspect of taking care of your neck is improving your posture and making your desk more ergonomic. If you have thoracic kyphosis or hyperlordosis, you might consider using a back brace that helps correct the misalignment, since it may help you better correct forward head posture.
Before you seek medication for neck pain, make sure you’re also addressing the root cause of the issue by fixing your neck posture and alleviating muscle tension.
Without getting to the bottom of your neck tightness, stiffness or pain, it’s bound to get worse.
On a positive note, you can get neck pain relief and correct forward head posture by releasing and stretching the Sternocleidomastoid muscle. Just remember that if your neck is especially tight, you will need to perform this routine regularly.
While it may not be a full fix, it’s a natural option for managing pain and potentially preventing it in the future.
If any neck exercises lead to worsened pain, stop immediately. Of course, it always helps to be looked at by a professional who can understand your specific case and suggest a treatment route accordingly.