The sternocleidomastoid (SCM) muscle is located at the base of your skull on either side of your neck, behind your ears.
On both sides of your neck, each muscle runs down the front of your neck and splits to attach to the top of your sternum and collarbone. The functions of this long, thick muscle are:
- rotating your head from side to side
- turning your neck to bring your ear to your shoulder
- bending your neck forward to bring your chin to your chest
- aiding in breathing and respiration
It also helps in chewing and swallowing and stabilizes your head when you drop it backward.
SCM pain can have a number of causes that are often related to some type of muscle tension. Tightness in another part of your body can cause referred pain in your SCM. It can also become tight and shortened from repeated activities such as:
- bending forward to type
- looking down at your phone
- turning your head away from center while using a computer
Causes of SCM pain can include chronic health conditions, such as asthma, and acute respiratory infections, such as sinusitis, bronchitis, pneumonia, and the flu.
Other causes of SCM pain include:
- injuries such as whiplash or falls
- overhead work such as painting, carpentry, or hanging curtains
- poor posture, especially when your head is forward or turned to the side
- shallow chest breathing
- sleeping on your stomach with your head turned to one side
- sudden movements
- tight chest muscles
- tight shirt collar or tie
You can feel SCM pain in a few different ways. Your neck, shoulders, or upper back may be especially sensitive to touch or pressure. You may experience pain in your sinuses, forehead, or near your eyebrows.
Dull, aching pain may be accompanied by feelings of tightness or pressure. Turning or tilting your head may cause sharp pain. More serious injuries may involve swelling, redness, and bruising. Muscle spasms may also occur.
You may have some of the following symptoms:
- difficulty holding up your head
- dizziness or imbalance
- muscle fatigue
- pain in your jaw, neck, or back of your head
- pain in your ear, cheek, or molars
- ringing in your ears
- scalp irritation
- tension headache or migraine
- unexplained tears
- visual disturbances such as blurred vision or light appearing dimmed
Set aside at least 15 minutes per day to do some type of simple stretches or yoga poses. Here are a few examples to get you started:
- Sit or stand facing forward.
- Exhale and slowly turn your head to the right, keeping your shoulders relaxed and down.
- Inhale and return to center.
- Exhale and turn to look over your left shoulder.
- Do 10 rotations on each side.
- Sit or stand facing forward.
- Exhale as you slowly tilt your right ear down toward your shoulder.
- Use your right hand to apply gentle pressure to your head to deepen the stretch.
- Hold for a few breaths, feeling the stretch on the side of your neck down to your collarbone.
- On an inhale, return to the starting position.
- Repeat on the opposite side.
- Do 10 tilts on each side.
There are more stretches you can do from a seated position, like at your desk or while watching TV.
Yoga practice can provide overall stretching and relaxation benefits. Here are two poses of varying difficulty that may help your neck muscles in time:
- Stand with your feet about 4 feet apart.
- Face your right toes forward and your left toes out at a slight angle.
- Square your hips and face forward in the same direction your right toes are pointing.
- Lift your arms up at your sides so they’re parallel to the floor.
- Slowly hinge at your hips to fold forward, stopping when your torso is parallel to the floor.
- Bring your left hand to your leg, the floor, or a block, wherever you can reach.
- Extend your right arm straight up with your palm facing away from your body.
- Turn your gaze to look up toward your right thumb.
- Exhale to turn your neck to look down at the floor.
- Inhale as you return your gaze upward.
- Keep the rest of your body stable and continue these neck rotations as you stay in the pose for up to 1 minute.
- Perform on the opposite side.
This pose allows you to passively hang your head back and down, releasing tension in your neck and shoulders. This lengthens and stretches the SCM, chest, and shoulder muscles.
Make sure the back of your neck is fully relaxed to avoid compressing your spine. If it’s uncomfortable for you to let your head hang back, you can tuck your chin into your chest and lengthen the back of your neck. Focus on engaging your neck muscles without straining.
You can also allow your head to hang back on some type of support such as a chair, the wall, or stacked blocks.
- Come into a seated position with your legs extended in front of you.
- Press your palms into the floor alongside your hips.
- Lift your hips and bring your feet under your knees.
- Deepen the pose by straightening your legs.
- Open your chest and let your head drop back.
- Hold for up to 30 seconds.
- Do this pose up to 3 times.
If you’re doing these poses as part of a full yoga session, be sure to do them after you’ve warmed up.
Posture and ergonomics
Treatment may be as simple as making changes to your posture, especially if you work or do certain activities in a position that causes pain. You may change the position of your chair or desk and use a headset instead of holding a phone between your ear and shoulder.
Clothing and sleep comfort
Make sure you have enough room in the neck of your shirts and ties. Consider wearing a neck brace while you sleep to keep your neck in the correct position. You can place a rolled towel under your neck to support the curve at the base of your skull.
Consider getting a massage as often as once per week. This may help relieve muscle tension and stress, though the results may only be short-term.
You can even do self-massage on your head, neck, and shoulders for 10 minutes per day. You might also use alternative therapies such as chiropractic acupuncture.
Heat or cold packs
Hot and cold therapies are a simple option to treat pain at home. This may help relieve swelling, relax muscles, and reduce pain.
Apply an ice pack or heating pad to the affected area for 20 minutes a few times throughout the day. If you alternate between the two, end with the cold treatment.
There are lots of treatments for SCM pain. You can explore options to figure out which ones best help you manage your symptoms. Don’t do anything that causes pain or makes symptoms worse. Speak with a doctor about what you’ve tried and what they can do to help.