Splenius Capitis & Cervicis: Pain & Trigger Points

The splenius capitis and cervicis can trigger pain in the head/skull, on top of the head – also called vertex pain – and neck pain if they contain active trigger points.

People that suffer often experienced a whiplash trauma or work long hours at the desk.

Still, it does not matter how bad the pain be right now, relief is possible.

Excessive muscle tension and trigger points can be eliminated with a 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 & Symptoms of the Splenius Capitis & Cervicis

1.1 Pain patterns

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

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

The splenius cervicis on the other hand can be responsible for pain in the 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.

1

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 cause pain when bending the neck backward or forward.

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 reach from the cervical to the 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 deep 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 the neck.

hals-rotation
2

Contraction of only one side initiates a rotation of the 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 the neck, and unilateral contraction – only one side – leads to a flexion of the 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 places high stress on these muscles and can activate trigger points.

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.

Sitting at your desk with your head 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.

In the long run the muscles will tense and trigger points can get activated.

Last but not least a „bad posture“ – head tilted forwards – or exposure of your neck to a cold breeze can cause activate trigger points in these muscles, too.

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

Place 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 contracting strongly, 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 massage 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 or 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 sensitive. Make sure to keep your massage sessions short and don’t overdo it.

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 into the muscle.
  • As soon as you find one, massage it with…
    • The pressure-motion technique: … by executing slow yes and no movements with your head.
    • Precise massage strokes: … by pulling it over the tender area.

The following pictures display exemplary massage positions.

1
2
3
4

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 forward and backward 10 – 15 times.
  • Also try other movements.

6.3 Self-massage with a ball

Especially the lower fibers of those muscles can be massaged well with a massage ball.

  • Place the ball next to your spine, bend your knees and lean against a wall.
  • 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