From the “Advanced Myofascial Techniques” series by Til Luchau. Originally published in Massage & Bodywork Magazine.
It is the scalane’s slanting, inclined, and tilted orientation that gives rise to their name. “Scalene” is a transliteration of the Greek σκαληνός, meaning “skew:” neither parallel nor perpendicular. This angled arrangement, in addition to making the scalenes powerful side-benders and rotators of the neck, puts them in position to align and stabilize the upright cervical column, much as would the angled rigging of an ship’s mast (Image 2).
At least, that’s how the scalenes function when they’re balanced. When they’re shorter or tighter on one side, their angled left/right and anterior/posterior arrangement can cause them to literally “skew” the neck and upper ribs. This means that scalenes are involved in these postural and positional issues:
- Torticollis (wry neck) is a persistent and often-painful torsion of the neck, typically accompanied by asymmetrical scalene spasm and rigidity.
- In both head-forward postures as well as the “dowager’s hump” pattern, the anterior scalenes are often hard, tight, and short, pulling the lower cervical vertebra forward into a rigidly flexed position (Image 3)
- Although usually considered cervical flexors, once the neck is extended (as in the cervical lordosis that often accompanies a head-forward position), the scalenes can become cervical extensors. This change in function is a result of both their upper and lower attachments now being posterior to the articulations they affect, making it impossible for the scalenes to counterbalance the lack of length in the posterior neck (Image 4). Shortness in the scalenes will thus perpetuate and reinforce the cervical lordosis.