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.
The scalenes are involved in other conditions as well:
- The scalenes are often injured in whiplash injuries, especially when lateral forces are involved. (Although working the scalenes can dramatically aid recovery from whiplash, it is most appropriate with “cold” whiplash–fixed, chronic, older injuries).
- Direct work on the scalenes can aggravate whiplash symptoms when applied too soon after an injury; too aggressively; or in the presence of “hot” whiplash signs (muscular spasm, autonomic activation, instability or guarding).
- Because the scalenes also aid in forced inspiration by lifting the first two ribs, they are often chronically shortened when there are respiratory issues, such as asthma.
- The scalenes stabilize the base of the neck against the asymmetrical forces of being right- or left-handed. For this reason, in people who habitually use their dominant hand to apply force (such as manual therapists), the scalenes are often significantly tighter on the side opposite the dominant hand.
- The deep pleural ligaments (Image 5: transversopleural, vertebropleural, and not pictured, costopleural) are fibrous bands that anchor the endothoracic fascia around the lungs to C7, T1, and the first rib. Lying deep to the scalenes and roughly parallel to their oblique arrangement, the pleural ligaments can have effects similar to the scalenes on the alignment and mobility of the base of the neck.
- Because the nerves of the brachial plexus pass between the anterior and the medial scalenes, crowding here can exacerbate symptoms of neurovascular compression (such as thoracic outlet syndrome). Working scalenes is indicated when there is numbness or tingling in the ulnar nerve distribution area (the small and ring fingers and medial hand, Image 7), especially when symptoms worsen with forced inhalation (which engages the scalenes) or neck rotation (which scissors the brachial plexus between the anterior and medial scalenes, Image 6).
Anterior Scalene Technique
These are all good reasons to include scalenes whenever you address the neck. However, working them directly can be tricky. The scalenes are often more contracted and denser than the tissues around them. (Janda classifies the scalenes as “tonic” muscles, meaning that when stressed they are prone to tightness rather than weakness, which may explain why they’re so often contracted.) The scalenes also lie close to the sensitive nerves of the brachial plexus (Image 5). This combination of hardness and proximity to nerves makes it difficult to use any degree of pressure or sliding, without causing referred nerve pain.
However, if we avoid sliding on them, and first slacken the scalenes by approximating their attachments, we can address them more comfortably and at much deeper levels. To accomplish this, begin by cradling your client’s head in one hand (Image 8). With the other hand, use the broad touch of several finger pads together to feel for the hard, longitudinally angled bellies of the anterior and medial scalenes, just above the clavicle and deep to the sternocleidomastoid. The hardest structure you feel here that isn’t bone, is usually the anterior scalene.
Now lift the head, gently flexing the neck around the static fulcrum of your other hand. You’ll feel the bellies of the scalenes press against your finger pads as you do this; apply just enough posterior pressure to resist the anterior movement of the scalenes and lower cervicals. This combination of vectors bends the anterior scalenes around your fulcrum hand, and encourages the cervicals to drop posteriorly, reducing their tendency towards anteriority (Image 9).
If this feels “nervy” to your client, or especially if he or she feels tingling in the fingers or hands when you apply pressure, reposition your touch so that it is comfortable, usually by shifting slightly medially. Shift too far medially or too high, though, and you’ll be near the carotid artery, jugular vein, or vagus nerve — none of which like direct pressure. Keep your touch broad, soft, and sensitive. It should never be uncomfortable to your client.
Once you have the counterforces of flexion and posterior pressure comfortably in place, resist the temptation to slide, nudge, or otherwise move your fingers on the delicate scalenes. Instead, wait for the body to respond. After three to six breaths, you’ll typically feel the scalenes and lower cervicals ease and drop posteriorly as the tissues soften and the nervous system adapts. This is the sign that it’s okay to move to a new position.
By releasing and moving your fulcrum position (rather than by sliding), you can then work higher or lower parts of the scalenes. Feel for left/right asymmetries in the scalenes, and in the deeper plural ligaments (Image 5) once the scalenes’ tone is reduced. Alternatively, you can shift your fulcrum slightly lateral, adding a bit of cervical sidebending around your finger pads to access the medial and posterior scalenes (Image 10). Wait for release and softening in each place. Stay in verbal contact with your client about any referred nerve pain. Be patient; wait for the release.
Of course, you’ll want to work the scalenes only after you’ve done other preparatory work to warm up the outer layers of the neck, and to accustom your client to your touch. Before you finish, be sure to work the scalenes on both sides, though if you find asymmetrical patterns, the amount of time you spend on each side will be different. Finish your scalene work with integrative, balancing, soothing techniques; even if you avoided pressing directly on the nerves of the brachial plexus, working the tonic scalenes can be sympathetically activating rather than parasympathetically calming.
Because the “Mother Cat” technique is calming and settling, and because it works both sides of the body rather than one side at a time, it is an ideal complement to scalene work.
“MOTHER CAT” Technique
In addition to the scalene work discussed, a technique we call the “Mother Cat” is meant to calm the tissues of the neck. You’ve seen what happens when a other cat picks up her kitten by the scruff of the neck – the kitten goes limp. This reflex is the source of the name we’ve given this technique, since humans also seem to let go, relax and surrender with posterior traction o their neck fascia. Like a kitten being carried by its mother, people relax when their cervical fascias are eased.
To perform the Mother Cat technique, wrap a soft hand around the back of your supine client’s neck, encompassing as much of both sides as possible. With the palm and fingers of your full hand, grasp and gather the outer layers of the nape of the neck straight backward toward the posterior midline (that is, toward the floor), applying gentle posterior traction to the outer layers of superficial fascia and trapezius. Allow the tissue layers to slowly slide out from under your hands a bit. Repeat several times, switching hands if you wish. Although we’re working both sides of the neck at the same time, the different shape of the left and right hands will allow you to access different aspects with each.
Our aim is to both work the outer tissues of the neck and to shift the autonomic tone of our client’s nervous system. Accordingly, let your pace be slow, steady, and patient as you repeat this technique, feeling for both tissue restrictions and for your client’s parasympathetic relaxation response.
Although this technique’s calming effects make it an ideal follow-up to the scalene work described earlier, these same properties make it an effective way to prepare a client for deep work as well. I originally learned this technique from William “Dub” Leigh, who called it “milking the neck,” for the first 10 minutes of his hands-on Functional Integration sessions. Feldenkrais, a scrappy Ukrainian-Israeli physicist and Judo champion (who, incidentally, taught Israeli Prim Minister Ben-Gurion how to stand on his head), reportedly claimed that just this technique and enough time, he “could have any man eating out of his hand.” If you’re inclined to try this experiment, do let me know the results, but please remember, along with great power comes great responsibility.