Uneven Shoulders: What Causes It and How to Fix Your Elevated Shoulder

Have you ever looked in the mirror and noticed that you have one shoulder higher than the other? It may look as if you are shrugging your shoulder on one side, however, you know for sure that you’re relaxing both sides equally.

So what’s the problem?

Well before you begin to curse your own body, you can be assured that this is, in fact, a common problem and that in most cases it can be fixed. Fixing uneven shoulders is something that you want to address and not leave uncorrected. Not only can it look weird, but it can also cause neck and shoulder pain and leave you vulnerable to developing shoulder injuries in the future.

In this post, I’m going to outline what the most likely problem is, and how you can fix it by simply releasing and stretching the tight muscles that surround your shoulder.

What Causes Uneven Shoulders?

It would be nice if we could pinpoint one root cause of uneven shoulders, however, unfortunately, it could be caused by numerous different things. What we can do, however, is divide the problem into two categories.

  • Structural or neural issues – An uneven shoulder height could be to structural imbalances such as scoliosis (unnatural curve of the spine), a titled pelvis or having one leg longer than the other. In addition, neural issues such as a neck injury from the past could result in one shoulder raising.
  • Uneven Hips – If you have hips that are not level, in that one hip is higher than the other, this can cause the shoulders to appear uneven. This hip imbalance is known as a lateral pelvic tilt. In a lateral pelvic tilt the side with the higher hip will have have the shoulder that is lower down.
  • Flat foot – Having flat feet, or more specifically having a foot with one arch that is more collapsed than the other, can cause one hip to be raised higher than the other, which in turn can cause uneven shoulders.
  • Muscular imbalance – Muscles around the elevated shoulder are not the correct length due to overuse or tightness.

This post will address the muscular imbalance issue as it is the most common and is the easiest to fix on your own. If you believe that you have uneven shoulders that could be the result of a structural impingement as described above, then the best course of action would be to see a physical therapist or medical professional.

How Muscular Imbalances Cause Uneven Shoulders

If you have one shoulder higher than the other and have ruled out that it is caused by structural impingement, then the most likely cause is due to muscle imbalances that cause one shoulder to elevate.

If one shoulder is lifted higher than the other, then the muscles on the elevated shoulder side are likely to be tight. There are two specific muscles that are the culprits that cause this dysfunction.

  1. Upper Trapezius
  2. Levator Scapulae

The upper trapezius muscle is the top part of the muscle below, specifically, it is the orange part. It is also the muscle that is activated when you shrug your shoulders up. So you can imagine that if this muscle is overactive and very tight on one side, it will pull the shoulder upwards.

Trapezius animation small2

Similarly the second muscle, the Levator Scapulae, also has the same effect if it gets too tight. The Levator Scapulae is a muscle that attaches behind the ear area, and runs down the back of your neck to the top of the shoulder blade, in effect it acts to raise the scapulae.

The Levator Scapulae

When this muscle becomes too short and tight, it will pull at the elevated shoulder lifting it higher than it should be.

So why do these Muscles get Tight?

There are many ways that these muscles can get short and tight but the root cause will always certainly be because of the way you hold your body throughout the day.

In other words, if you elevate one shoulder unnaturally and hold it there for a long time, the muscles will adapt to that position.

In our case the upper traps and the levator scapulae are held in a shortened position which then leads them to hold onto to this shortened length.

Here are some common ways that you may unknowingly elevate one shoulder.

  • You may elevate one shoulder to hold your phone by your ear when you talk.
  • If you favour sleeping on one side this may hike up one shoulder into an elevated position.
  • Carrying a bag on the same shoulder may lead you to lift up that shoulder to support the extra weight.
  • Continuously bending your head to the same side may cause your levator scapulae to shorten

These are some examples of how those particular muscles may become tight. The thing to remember is that it is the length of time that your muscles are in these position that matters. If you hold onto these patterns for many hours every day over many years, then the muscles begin to adapt.

How to Fix Your Uneven Shoulder

We can see that fixing your uneven shoulders is a two-step process.

a) Address the Root Cause

The very first thing you want to do is to stop putting your shoulder into an elevated position by eliminating instances where you have a habit of raising it unnaturally.

For example, if you tend to hold your backpack on the elevated shoulder, you may want to spread the load evenly by holding it on your other shoulder from time to time. Or you could switch to wearing the backpack over both shoulders.

If you hold a briefcase primarily with your right hand which causes you to raise your shoulder, you can switch to holding it with the other hand.

The task here is to identify why and when you tend to hold your shoulder up, and learn to stop yourself from doing it.

b) Stretch and Release the Tight Muscles

This is the main remedy for fixing any muscle imbalances that cause this problem.

First, you want to loosen up the muscles by performing myofascial release on the upper traps and the levator scapulae. Once the muscle fibres have been loosened the next step is to stretch the muscles to cause them to lengthen back to their original position.

This process is what we will be focusing on in this post.

1. Releasing and Stretching the Upper Traps

Watch the video below for a great overview on how the upper traps get tight and how to stretch and release them.

The upper traps are notoriously prone to become tight as it’s a place where we tend to carry a lot of stress. If you can get someone to massage your upper trap area then that would be ideal. On the other hand, it is possible to release them yourself.

Releasing the Traps

The best tool to do this would be by using a TheraCane. You would hold the TheraCane and place the hook over your shoulder so that the knob is placed onto the upper trap area. From there, you would move it around until you find tender spots and push firmly down on the area for at least 30 seconds.

You can also use a small massage ball to massage the area. For best results you are likely going to have to get onto the floor and place the ball onto your upper traps. Alternatively, you could lean on a wall, with the ball between your upper traps and the wall.

Stretching the Traps

Stretching the upper traps is fairly easy. To do so, make sure your arm is anchored down to help keep your shoulder from lifting up. Then tilt your head to the opposite side. You can gently add pressure with your hand for a greater stretch. If done correctly you should feel a stretch across one side of the upper traps.

2) Releasing and Stretching the Levator Scapulae

The levator scapulae are generally lessor known than the upper traps, but are still easy to release.

Releasing the Levator Scapulae

Massaging the levator scapulae is a lot easier than the upper traps and doesn’t require as much effort either. It can be done using your own hand/fingers, a massage ball or a TheraCane.

To massage it, place the tool of your choice onto the area behind your ear lobe area. It should feel a muscle in this area. Once you have located this area apply pressure. Using small circular motions, move slowly along this muscle and down to the base of the neck.

Stretching the Levator Scapulae

To stretch this muscle requires much the same routine as stretching the traps.

The difference in the stretch is very subtle and requires you to tilt your head to the opposite side of the shoulder you want to stretch.

Make sure to be aware that you are feeling a stretch that is different from when stretching the upper traps.

To intensify the stretch, hold your scapula in place and even try to push it down away from your head.

How to Get Results

The problem of uneven shoulders is something that I have dealt with. In my case, it was primarily caused by holding a heavy bag on my right shoulder during my school days. Back when I was in school holding your bag using two straps was deemed to be uncool. At the time I didn’t know that having one shoulder higher than the other when you’re an adult would be even more uncool!

It may take a bit of time to get that elevated shoulder down particularly if you are someone who is stressed and tends to hold a lot of tension in the upper traps. For me, it is an ongoing process to learn to relax the traps on both shoulders, yet alone one. It also involves massaging the trap area frequently. It is not a one-time thing. You may have to perform this routine frequently until you see results.

Overactive Upper Traps

In addition, people with overactive traps may need to add an additional step to the process which involves strengthening the lower traps. Activating and strengthening the lower traps, will counteract the chronic upward pull of the upper traps. If this is you, then exercises such as the ‘prone cobra’ and other back exercises will be particularly beneficial to you.

If you persist in doing the routine outlined above, in time you should begin to see results. Just make sure to address the root cause too otherwise you’ll be in an endless cycle of stretching and releasing.

I would also recommend looking at the possibility of having a lateral pelvic tilt. This can be an overlooked cause of uneven shoulders. For further information, read my article on how to fix a lateral pelvic tilt.

Good luck!

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