Rotator Cuff Health: How to Stretch & Release the Supraspinatus to Ease Shoulder Pain

Are your shoulders tight and covered with trigger points? If you suffer discomfort in your shoulders it could be that you do indeed have trigger points that you are unaware of surrounding the back of your shoulders.

Your supraspinatus is a small muscle in your shoulder blade that can be the source of a lot of pain if not taken care of.

Whether you work at an office desk every day or you play a shoulder-intensive sport like tennis or football, chances are, your supraspinatus is tight and in need of trigger point release.

Releasing the supraspinatus muscle can relieve shoulder pain that has developed as a result of tightness.

In this post, we’ll dive into how you can tell if your supraspinatus is tight, and what you can do about it if it is.

Hopefully, by the end of it, you’ll understand this lesser-known muscle a little better and be able to start addressing your shoulder tightness or pain.


Supraspinatus: What Does It Do and Where is it Located?

The supraspinatus isn’t exactly a well-known muscle in your body. Yet, its significance can be profound when it comes to shoulder, neck and even head pain.

Let’s take a look at the anatomy of this small muscle.

Supraspinatus muscle animation

The supraspinatus is a tendon-type surrounded by bones at your shoulder joint, passing right underneath the cover of your acromion—the topmost bone of your shoulder. It’s one of 4 tendon muscles that make up your rotator cuff muscle group.

The supraspinatus is the lowermost of these 4, attaching at one end to the top of the humerus (upper arm bone).

Can you feel for your supraspinatus with your hand?

Your supraspinatus is nestled with your larger trapezius muscle, so it’s a little bit hard to feel for without confusing the two. Your upper trap muscle starts at the shoulder cap and goes up the sides of your neck. However, you can touch your supraspinatus muscle if you know where to feel for it.

  • Place your hand on your shoulder joint and feel for the horizontal bone where the top of your shoulder cap seems to end.
  • Come upwards about a half-inch from that and you’ll feel a small tendon muscle that is separate from your upper trap muscle.
  • You may even notice trigger points (tender spots that hurt when you apply pressure) on your supraspinatus already from touching it. (This is a sign your supraspinatus is tight and needs to be released). [1]

Functions

The supraspinatus is in charge of helping your arm abduct to the side and in front of you. It works together with your deltoid muscle to achieve this function, doing much of the work until your arm reaches about 15 degrees, which is when the deltoid starts doing more of the lifting.

The supraspinatus also functions to help hold your humerus bone in place in your arm, since it’s firmly attached at the top end of this long arm bone.

Nerves

Your supraspinatus is innervated by what’s known as the suprascapular nerve, which also runs through the rest of your shoulder, as well as your collar bone and parts of your neck.

That considered, it’s unsurprising this muscle can be a root cause of chronic shoulder pain, as well as neck pain. Trigger points can appear throughout any of the muscles along this nerve since it connects them all [3].

How Does Your Supraspinatus Get Tight?

The supraspinatus is prone to tightness whenever you carry heavy loads in your arms or hold your arms out in front of you for long periods.

For example, if you use a computer keyboard for a long time, especially without elbow support, your supraspinatus will tighten up.

Moving heavy things, overtraining in weightlifting exercises or working with your arms overhead such as in painting, can cause the muscle to tighten up [4].

Why Stretch and Release Your Supraspinatus?

Stretching your supraspinatus is important for having good posture, preventing headaches, shoulder pain and neck pain, and maintaining range of motion in your shoulder joints.

It’s not uncommon for the supraspinatus to get tight from everyday activities. With computers and mobile devices that have you using your arms in front of you for long periods, this muscle can become contracted.

This tightness and squeezing of the muscle reduces blood flow, causing lactic acid (metabolic waste from muscles) to build up in the area without being flushed out into the bloodstream. When lactic acid levels are high, pain creeps in. This is what causes achiness and soreness.

When your supraspinatus is excessively tight and contracted from a strenuous activity like heavy lifting, stretching and loosening up the muscle is key to helping it heal.

Doing so regularly can help you avoid shoulder pain and continue performing at the same level. Plus, if your supraspinatus is tight, you’re at a higher risk for injury, especially when you do repetitive activities with your overhead arm actions, like swimming, football, basketball, tennis or other sports or activities.


Is Your Supraspinatus Tight?

People with severe supraspinatus tightness, inflammation and pain will have difficulty lifting their arms overhead anywhere above shoulder level.

While you may be able to raise your arms overhead, if you still feel tightness or if you hear and feel a clicking or popping in your shoulder joint, then your supraspinatus might be tight.

When your supraspinatus and other rotator cuff muscles are severely inflamed from wear and tear, you can even experience a “catching” of your shoulder joint when you rotate your arms around.

What’s happening is that a swollen supraspinatus muscle pushes against and the synovial tissues, resulting in a painful “catch” each time you raise your arm.

Releasing and stretching the supraspinatus can help flush out stagnant fluids in the muscle, relieve inflammation and promote healing. By restoring normal anatomy, releasing this crucial muscle can eliminate that “catch” of the shoulder joint [5].

In the next section, we’ll show you first how to release and loosen up the supraspinatus.


How to Release Your Supraspinatus

So why does releasing the supraspinatus help and what does it mean? To answer this, first, you need to understand what a trigger point is.

A trigger point is an inflamed, tight ball that forms within the fibres of a muscle and its fascia. You can identify a trigger point through self-massage because trigger points are pin-point spots on muscle tissue or tendons that feel more painful when pressure is applied, compared to other tissue.

Sometimes, you’ll be surprised to find trigger points in areas where you don’t necessarily experience pain. That’s because a trigger point sometimes causes pain in a different (but nearby) localized area. For example, when you push in on trigger points in your supraspinatus, you may feel pain or sensations in other areas of your shoulder, as well as your elbow and forearm.

On the other hand, you may find that your supraspinatus is the exact point of pain, and that releasing trigger points and massaging the muscle help reduce your pain.

Whatever the case may be, releasing your supraspinatus using self-massage techniques helps relieve pain and promotes healing in the tissue.

The following steps will help you release your supraspinatus.

1. Release Your Upper Trap Muscle

5 Upper Trapezius Release Techniques | Shoulder Pain , Mobility , Posture

Before you use certain tools to release your supraspinatus in step 2, start by releasing your upper traps. They’re a little easier to release, but it still helps to have self-massage tools on hand.

By releasing any trigger points you have in your upper trap muscle (most of us do), it reduces inflammation in the area where your supraspinatus is located and makes it easier to access and isolate for trigger point release.

Use this simple method to release your upper trapezius, which runs from the top of your shoulder up along your neck.

Hold a tennis ball or massage ball in one hand and use it to dig into your upper trap, starting at the base of your neck, at the top of your shoulder.

Roll the ball on your shoulder and into the muscle between your shoulder and neck. Then, roll the ball at the bottom of the side of your neck along the large muscle.

2. Releasing Your Supraspinatus

How To Release The Supraspinatus | Rotator Cuff Relief

The same way you released your trapezius using a ball, you’ll want to release your supraspinatus. Any ball with adequate density and a soft feel is great for applying pressure on a trigger point.

There are a variety of massage balls you can use, so you probably have something already on hand. If you don’t have a massage ball, use a tennis or lacrosse ball. If you’re having trouble locating your supraspinatus, try using a golf ball, since it’s smaller and helpful for isolating small muscles.

Or, you can find sets of massage balls that come with balls of various sizes. These sets include a small ball that may work better than a golf ball because its density and material are designed for trigger point massage.

  • Holding your ball in one hand and place the ball on the opposite shoulder.
  • Feel for the horizontal bone where the top of your shoulder cap seems to end. Come upwards about a half-inch from that and you’ll feel the supraspinatus, a small tendon muscle that feels separate from your upper trap muscle.
  • Roll and press on the ball to massage and dig into the supraspinatus. Applying pressure is the key to trigger point release, so don’t be surprised if it feels painful. This is what tells you trigger point release is needed.

Difficulty Using a Massage Ball?

Ever heard of a massage cane? It’s a self-massage tool that makes it easy to release hard-to-reach trigger points. Most massage canes have a “J” or “S” shape so that you can hook it around your shoulder, back, leg or foot and leverage the stick to apply pressure.

Some of the best massage canes on the market today are the TheraCane and the Body Back Buddy. These can help not just with your supraspinatus, but also with trigger point release throughout your body.

To release your supraspinatus using a massage cane, place the hook over your shoulder, so that you’re pulling the end of the hook with your hand in front of you.

Use the same method as with the massage ball to locate your supraspinatus, and make sure the ball of the massage cane is right on it. Pull the stick down to put pressure on your supraspinatus.

We recommend watching the video above if you are having difficulty locating and releasing your supraspinatus.


How to Stretch Your Supraspinatus

Activities like long periods of typing at a keyboard or driving in a car, in which you’re raising and using your arms below eye level, cause your supraspinatus to contract.

When a muscle is contracted for more than 20 or so minutes at a time, it’s hard for it to release and go back to its neutral state without being actively stretched out again.

Stretching not only brings your supraspinatus back to a more neutral position, but also it boosts circulation so that a supply of fresh blood flow can help heal the muscle tissue.

Stretching out the supraspinatus is not as easy as stretching out more prominent muscles of the body. The fact that it’s small and relatively hidden is one of the main causes of this.

There are however still some stretches that can help.

1. Pendulum Stretch

Pendulum Exercises

  • Stand next to a table so that it’s at your side.
  • With a flat back, bend forward at the waist.
  • Let your forearm and elbow support you on the table.
  • Let your opposite arm hang straight down from the shoulder joint, limply and loosely.
  • Slowly move your right arm forward and back, so that it swings like the pendulum of a grandfather clock.
  • Then, change the movement to side to side
  • Next, go around in a circle 3 or more times, and switch directions.
  • Repeat on the other side.

2. Seated Table Slides

Shoulder Flexion Table Slides – Ask Doctor Jo

  • Sit in a chair at a table with a small towel in front of you.
  • Place your hands on the towel, with your palms facing down. You can do one arm at a time or both hands at the same time.
  • Bend forward at the waist and push the towel as far forward on the table as possible, letting it slide along the table as you bend into a deeper stretch.
  • Once you feel an adequate stretch in your shoulders, hold it for 20 or so seconds before sliding back up to your original position.
  • Repeat for 3 more reps.

3. Single-Side Stretch

Stretches for Tense Shoulders & Back Pain Relief, Beginners How to Routine, Safe Stretching Yoga

  • Sit on a yoga ball or chair, or stand. Either way, make sure your spine is straight.
  • Relax your shoulders and let your arms hang down by your sides.
  • Raise your right arm directly overhead, so that your elbow is right next to your head.
  • Bend at the elbow so that you can reach your right hand down your back.
  • Bring your left hand behind your back and grab your right hand or wrist.
  • If your hands can’t reach each other, roll up a small towel or grab a resistance band you can hold between both hands.
  • If you want to increase the intensity of the stretch, let your head drop to your left side.
  • Hold the stretch for 30 to 60 seconds. Repeat on the other side.

4. Posterior Shoulder Stretches

Seated Posterior Delt Stretch

  • You can do this stretch sitting down or standing up. The important thing is you keep your posture straight and upright, to target the supraspinatus effectively.
  • Raise one arm in front of you to shoulder height, so that it’s parallel to the ground.
  • Cross the extended arm over your chest and use your other arm to hold it in place.
  • Feel the stretch in your posterior deltoid and supraspinatus, at the back of your shoulder joint.
  • Hold for 30 seconds.
  • Bend the elbow of the arm that’s stretched across your body, so that you feel a more isolated stretch in your supraspinatus.
  • The more you pull your arm in toward your body, the deeper you’ll feel the stretch.
  • Repeat the stretches on the opposite shoulder. [6]

Tips and Best Practices for Supraspinatus Self-Care

Have you discovered that your supraspinatus is a trigger point hub in your shoulder?

If it’s a source of tightness or pain, it’s important to address it and treat the muscle dysfunction with stretching and trigger point release.

Here are some tips for getting the most out of the exercises covered in this post:

  • Stretch and release your supraspinatus regularly. Do all the exercises daily, every other day, or do half of the exercises on alternating days. If you only massage and release the muscle it when it starts to hurt, then you won’t be able to prevent pain and maximize the muscle’s chance of healing.
  • Combine stretching and releasing exercises other practices like stress management, getting good sleep and drinking plenty of water.

Bottom Line: Trigger Point Release for Your Supraspinatus

Now that you know a little bit more about the lesser-known supraspinatus tendon muscle in your shoulder, you can think of it when you experience shoulder pain.

Stretching and releasing this often-tight muscle helps you maintain optimal range of motion in your arms. It also reduces tension that leads to neck pain and headaches over time. If you still have pain you may want to look into the possibility of shoulder impingement.

If you have a past shoulder injury, consult with your doctor or physical therapist before trying the exercises in this post.

You can use the same trigger point release techniques described here on various muscles in your shoulders and throughout the rest of your upper body. Doing so on a consistent basis can help prevent pain and keep tension at bay.

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