Splenius capitis & cervicis pain & trigger points

The splenius capitis and cervicis muscles can give you pain in the head/skull, on top of the head – also called vertex pain – and neck pain if they are too tight or contain trigger points.

People that suffer from issues in the splenius muscles often experienceda whiplash trauma or work long hours at the desk.

Still, no matter how nasty the pain might feel right now, relief is possible.

Excessive muscle tension and trigger points can be eliminated via self-massage, by everyone!

On this page I will supply you with all the information you need to work on the splenius muscles yourself.

You will learn about those muscles’ attachment points, their functions, pain zones, overload movements, impaired movements, palpation and massage.

1. Pain patterns and symptoms of the splenius capitis & cervicis

1.1 Pain patterns

The pictures below display the pain zones of these two muscles. The deeper the red, the more likely it is to experience pain the respective area if trigger points are present in the muscle.

If the splenius capitis is overly tight or harbors trigger points, it can send pain to the top your head, which is also called vertex pain (X1).

The splenius cervicis on the other hand can be responsible for pain in your skull (X3), your eye and at the side of your neck (X2). Furthermore it can be the cause for a blurred vision.

Hence, it can contribute to your stiff neck or neck pain.

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Pain Trp X1, X2 & X3

2

Pain Trp X1

3

Pain Trp X1, X2 & X3

1.2 Symptoms & complaints

Too much tension and/or trigger points in the splenius muscles can give you pain when bending your neck backwards or forwards.

Furthermore, you might experience a stiff neck and limited as well as painful neck rotation.

2. Attachment points of the splenius capitis & cervicis

These two muscles are located at the back of your neck and cover your cervical and parts of your thoracic spine.

The splenius capitis muscle attaches at the mastoid process, the occipital bone, the cervical spine as well as at the thoracic spine.

The splenius cervicis muscle runs below and to the side of the capitis. It attaches at the transverse processes – outer side of vertebrae – of the first three cervical vertebrae and at the thoracic spine.

The Xs in the picture below show areas that are commonly affected by trigger points.

3. Splenius capitis & cervicis function

Splenius capitis function

hals-extension
1

If both sides of this muscle contract – bilateral contraction –, they extend your neck.

hals-rotation
2

Contraction of only one side initiates a rotation of your neck to the same side.

hals-extension-rotation
3

Activity peaks were found when this rotation occurs with simultaneous neck extension.

Splenius cervicis function

hals-lateralflexion-2
1

Bilateral contraction leads to an extension of your neck, and unilateral contraction – only one side – leads to a flexion of your neck to the same side.

4. Trigger point activation in the splenius capitis & cervicis

These two muscles, like all muscles, are likely to get tight and develop trigger points if…

  • they get acutely overloaded – e.g. accidents –
  • they get used repetitively
  • they are held in shortened positions hours-long

Acute overload in form of a whiplash trauma often happens in car accidents.

During the impact your head gets hurled and experiences a fast acceleration followed by an abrupt deceleration. This  puts massive stress on these muscles and mostly results in trigger point development.

Belaying someone during rock climbing or doing lots of overhead work displays the scenario of repetitive use.

In both cases, the person is looking upwards repeatedly. Over time and without balancing those activities – stretching and relaxation – this  leads to elevated muscle tension and eventually in trigger points in the working muscles.

Sitting at your desk with your head permanently turned to one side – e.g. to watch your computer screen – shortens the splenius muscles. Holding a muscle in a shortened or extended position for longer periods of time is detrimental to its health and, if possible,  should be avoided by any means.

Your muscles may forgive you that for some time, but in the long run they will tighten up and develop trigger points. Last but not least you should know „bad posture“  – head tilted forwards – or exposure of your neck to a cold breeze can cause trouble in these muscles.

5. Splenius capitis & cervicis palpation

While feeling the splenius capitis is a bit tricky, you probably won’t be able to palpate the splenius cervicis.

For locating the capitis, place one finger in the space between your upper trapezius and your sternocleidomastoid, right at the top of your head.

If you do not know where that is, the pictures below might help you.

Most of the splenius cervicis is covered by your trapezius muscle which makes it almost impossible to palpate it. Still you will be able to massage it as you know where it is located.

Splenius capitis palpation

1

Put one finger on your sternocleidomastoid, rotate your neck to the opposite site and feel this muscle contracting.

Then, move your finger slightly – maybe 1 cm – towards your spine until you feel a tiny well – not deeper than 0.5 cm –.

Now you can palpate the splenius capitis.

2

To feel it contracting, slowly turn your head to the other side.

When you reach a rotation angle of 45° and more on the opposite site, the muscle is really bulking up and you should be able to feel it.

Now you can palpate it even better and follow its muscle belly a couple of centimeters down your neck until your trapezius starts to cover it.

6. Self-massage of the splenius capitis & cervicis

You can massage these muscles with the Trigger Fairy, a massage ball or with your fingers.

I recommend massaging yourself with the Trigger Fairy as it allows you to loosen the muscles without straining your hands. They are very delicate tools, and you should use other tools whenever possible. Please, save your hands!

Still, in case you don´t have a ball ot Fairy at your disposal, you can read how to use your hands for massage, too.

Note: You are about to massage the area of your neck, which is very sensible. Make sure to keep your massage sessions short and don’t overdo it here.

6.1 Self-massage with the Trigger Fairy

With the Fairy I recommend using precise massage strokes or the pressure-motion technique.

  • Place the head of the Fairy on your splenii muscles.
  • Search for tender spots by gently pressing it into the muscle tissue.
  • As soon as you find one, massage it with…
    • The pressure-motion technique: … by executing slow yes and no motions.
    • Precise massage strokes: … by pulling it only over the tender area.

The following pictures show you exemplary massage positions.

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2
3
4

Your fingers are precise tools, but also delicate ones.

6.2 Self-massage with your hands

Here I recommend using the pressure-motion technique.

  • Form your hand like a shovel and place your fingertips on the opposite side of your neck, on the area you want to massage.
  • Then, gently apply pressure and start to bend your head forwards and backwards doing the „Yes-Motion“ for 10 – 15 times.
  • Also try out other movements.

6.3 Self-massage with a ball

Especially the lower fibres of those muscles can be worked quite well with a massage ball.

  • Place the ball next to your spine, bend your knees and then lean against a wall.
  • Now carefully roll over the muscles in this region and search for tender areas.
  • Extend your search all the way down until you are between your shoulder blades.
  • Massage each area with a couple of slow massage strokes.

References

  • Calais-German, Blandine. Anatomy of Movement. Seattle: Eastland Press, 1993. Print
  • Davies, Clair, and Davies, Amber. The Trigger Point Workbook: Your Self-Treatment Guide For Pain Relief. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications, Inc., Print
  • Simons, David G., Lois S. Simons, and Janet G. Travell. Travell & Simons’ Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction: The Trigger Point Manual. Baltimore, MD: Williams & Wilkins, 1999. Print.
  • Schünke, Michael., Schulte, Erik, and Schumacher, Udo. Prometheus: Lernatlas der Anatomie. Stuttgart/New York: Georg Thieme Verlag, 2007. Print