The sternocleidomastoid (SCM) is one of the most prominent muscles in the neck, stretching diagonally across either side of the throat. Given its prominent position and the significant role it plays in head and neck movement, pain or discomfort in the SCM can significantly affect daily activities. In this blog, we will delve deep into the intricacies of the SCM, highlighting the causes of pain, identifying its symptoms, and suggesting ways to alleviate the discomfort.
Why Does My Sternocleidomastoid Hurt?
Pain or discomfort in the sternocleidomastoid (SCM) muscle can be caused by a variety of reasons. Here’s a breakdown of some of the most common causes:
- Muscle Strain or Overuse
Overstretching, lifting heavy objects, or performing activities that put excessive strain on the neck can lead to muscle strains. Overusing the SCM, for example, by frequently looking down at a mobile device (“tech neck”), can also lead to discomfort.
- Whiplash Injury
This is a common injury in rear-end car collisions where the rapid back-and-forth movement of the head can strain the neck muscles, including the SCM.
- Myofascial Pain Syndrome
This is a chronic condition where trigger points (knots) in muscles can lead to pain when pressed. These trigger points can refer pain to in other areas. If present in the SCM, they might cause pain in the neck, jaw, or even the head.
- Infections and Inflammations
Sometimes, an infection or inflammation in or near the SCM muscle can cause pain. Torticollis, for example, which is sometimes called “wry neck”, can be a result of an infection and can lead to painful, involuntary contractions of the SCM.
- Tension Headaches
The SCM can refer pain to in areas around the head. That can sometimes be mistaken for tension headaches.
- Poor Posture
Sitting or standing with a forward head posture, rounded shoulders, or a hunched back for extended periods can put additional strain on the SCM, leading to discomfort.
- Sleeping Position
Sleeping in an awkward position without proper neck support can strain the SCM and other neck muscles. Eventually, this leads to pain upon waking.
It’s crucial to remember that while these are some common causes, there might be other underlying reasons for SCM pain. If you experience persistent or severe pain, it’s essential to seek a medical evaluation.
What Does Sternocleidomastoid Pain Feel Like?
Sternocleidomastoid (SCM) pain can manifest in various ways. And its presentation can vary based on the underlying cause. Common sensations or symptoms associated with SCM pain include:
1. Localized Pain
This is a direct pain felt in the muscle itself. It may be described as a sharp, stabbing pain or a dull, aching sensation. The pain might increase with certain movements. Such as turning the head or tilting it to the side.
2. Referred Pain
The SCM is notorious for causing referred pain due to trigger points. This means that even though the issue is within the SCM, the pain is felt in other areas. Common referral patterns include:
Pain or aching sensation behind the eyes
- Forehead pain
- Jaw pain or aching in the cheek areas
- Pain in the throat or a sensation of a lump in the throat
- Ear pain or a sense of fullness in the ear
SCM issues can sometimes result in tension-type headaches. This pain typically feels like a band tightening around the forehead.
A tight or injured SCM can cause stiffness in the neck, limiting the range of motion. And making it challenging to turn the head from side to side or tilt it.
5. Muscle Swelling or Thickening
In some cases, particularly with inflammation or significant strain, the muscle might feel thicker or appear swollen.
6. Other Symptoms
Due to its connection to various head and neck functions, an affected SCM can sometimes cause other symptoms, including:
- Dizziness or vertigo
- Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
- Visual disturbances
It’s worth noting that while the SCM can cause all these symptoms, other medical conditions can lead to similar feelings. As such, if you experience any of the symptoms mentioned above, it’s crucial to consult with a medical professional.
Is It Safe To Massage Sternocleidomastoid?
Yes, it is generally safe to massage the sternocleidomastoid (SCM) muscle. And doing so can often provide relief from tension, tightness, or trigger points within the muscle. Massaging the SCM can help increase blood flow, reduce muscle tightness, and alleviate pain. It’s essential to use gentle techniques, especially when starting, as the neck region contains vital structures like arteries, veins, and nerves.
Gentle, slow strokes along the muscle, as well as light pressure on any tender points, can be beneficial. However, there are certain precautions to keep in mind. Additionally, individuals with medical conditions such as blood clotting disorders, neck injuries, or tumors should consult with a healthcare professional before attempting any form of neck massage.
How Do You Relieve Sternocleidomastoid Pain?
Relieving sternocleidomastoid (SCM) pain often involves a combination of treatments, self-care practices, and lifestyle adjustments. Here are some strategies to help alleviate discomfort in this muscle:
Cold and Warm Compresses
- Cold Compress: Using cold therapy can constrict blood vessels, reducing inflammation and providing numbing relief. It’s best applied soon after an injury or onset of pain. Applying an ice pack—ensuring it’s wrapped in a cloth or towel to protect the skin—for intervals of 10-15 minutes can help. Avoid direct contact with the skin to prevent ice burns and frostbite.
- Warm Compress: Heat therapy works by improving circulation and blood flow to a particular area due to increased temperature. This can soothe discomfort and increase muscle flexibility. Before applying a warm towel or heating pad, ensure it’s not too hot to prevent burns. A 15-20-minute application is usually sufficient.
Stretching provides several benefits: it increases blood flow, improves mobility, and can help in elongating muscle fibers that might be in spasm. For the SCM:
Seated SCM Stretch: While seated, ensure your back is straight. Gently tilt your head to one side, aiming to bring the ear closer to the shoulder without lifting the shoulder. For a more profound stretch, place your hand on the head’s side and apply a light, downward pressure. Hold for 15-30 seconds and repeat on the opposite side. Make sure to breathe deeply throughout.
Gentle massaging can help release muscle tension and improve blood flow. Use your fingertips to apply gentle, circular motions along the SCM’s length, focusing on any palpable knots or tight areas. If done regularly, self-massage can be a proactive way to prevent muscle tightness. For more persistent knots, trigger point therapy by a trained professional might be beneficial.
Ensuring a correct posture, especially during prolonged activities, is essential to prevent SCM and neck strain. Use ergonomic chairs that support the lumbar curve. Ensure that computer screens are at eye level to avoid looking down or up for extended periods. Consider using posture-correcting tools or wearables that remind you to maintain an upright posture.
Over-the-Counter Pain Relievers
Medications like ibuprofen or acetaminophen can provide temporary relief. Before using any medication, ensure it doesn’t interact with any other medications you might be taking. Also, be aware of any allergies or contraindications and never exceed the recommended dose. If in doubt, consult with a pharmacist or physician.
Physical therapists can provide targeted exercises and stretches for SCM pain relief. They may also utilize modalities like ultrasound, TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation), or manual therapies to alleviate pain and restore function. Commitment to the prescribed home exercise program can make a significant difference in recovery and pain management.
Rest and Avoidance
Sometimes, the best remedy is to allow the body to heal. If a particular activity or motion is causing pain or discomfort, try to avoid or modify it temporarily. This break can prevent further strain and give the muscle time to recover.
Proper hydration is essential for muscle function. When dehydrated, muscles can cramp or spasm more easily. Aim for at least 8 glasses of water daily, more if you’re active or in hot conditions.
Consider Alternative Therapies
Techniques like acupuncture might help in managing pain. Chiropractic care, especially when combined with massage or physical therapy, can provide comprehensive relief. Always ensure you’re working with licensed and trained practitioners.
Seek Medical Advice
Persistent, severe, or worsening pain should be addressed by a medical professional. They can offer a correct diagnosis, rule out any underlying conditions, and suggest the most suitable treatment options. Don’t hesitate to seek out specialized advice when needed.
How Long Does Sternocleidomastoid Pain Last?
The duration of sternocleidomastoid (SCM) pain can vary widely based on its underlying cause. And the measures taken to address it.
If the pain is due to a simple strain or overuse, it may resolve within a few days to a week with adequate rest, self-care measures, and over-the-counter pain relievers. However, for more chronic conditions, the SCM pain can persist for weeks or even months. In such cases, comprehensive treatment may be required to fully address the issue.
It’s crucial to understand that each individual’s healing process can differ. So while some might find relief quickly, others might need prolonged care and intervention.
Sternocleidomastoid pain, while common, can vary in its intensity and duration based on its root cause. Whether stemming from acute strains, chronic postural habits, or underlying medical conditions, understanding its source and implementing effective remedies is crucial. Incorporating strategies such as proper posture, therapeutic massage, and guided stretches can offer significant relief.
However, persistent pain or symptoms should never be ignored. Always prioritize your health by seeking expert advice. It will be ensuring that the path to recovery is both effective and tailored to your specific needs. If you’re experiencing Neck pain, physical therapy for neck pain at PhysioMantra can help: Book an online physical therapy session.