Computer Pain: Shoulders and Chest

Traveling up the arm towards the trunk of the body, we come across a few more muscles that get a workout at the desk. Introducing: the pectoralis (major and minor) and the subscapularis (subscap, for short).

Actually, I’ve already talked in depth about the pec muscles, so let’s first get up to speed with the subscap. Where is this muscle located?

True to its name, the (sub)(scapula)ris is located behind the scapula, sandwiched between this bone and the ribcage.That makes the bulk of the muscle internal, mostly hidden from view and palpation. Luckily for us, though, its lateral edge peeks out under the arm.

This one is easy to find on yourself: Take your arm and reach it all the way across the front of your body. Grab hold of the back of your armpit. The place where your thumb is resting is the subscap.

If you can, gently palpate this area. Does it feel tender? You’re not alone. Those X’s on the image above are the locations of its trigger points.

Now that we know a little more about the subscap, let’s bring the pecs back to the discussion. What do all of these muscles do? Why do they get so upset?

All three of these muscles concern the shoulder, but the shoulder area itself actually refers to multiple joints. Pec major and the subscap are involved with the movements of arm at the glenohumeral joint (ie, what most people think of as the shoulder). Any time your arm is out in front of your body (like when you reached across yourself to find the subscap) – that’s the work of these guys.

The pec minor, on the other hand, is involved with the movements of the scapula (shoulder blade). Any time you huddle over your desk and scrunch your shoulders together (see here) – that’s pec minor.

But let’s say you’re hunched over your desk and you’re typing away at a blog post/legal document/data program. Can you see how all of these muscles get used (and overused) together?

It’s rare that a client will seek me out for work specifically on these muscles. Most of the time, clients will tell me that they had no idea that those muscles were in such pain until I started working on them. While it’s certainly satisfying to teach my clients new things about their bodies all the time, I wish more people were aware of how crucial these muscles are. When pec muscles shorten due to stress and poor posture, this causes disruptions throughout the entire body. Curved spine, elongated neck, overstretched back and rotator cuffs.

The subscap can be a particularly troublesome muscle as well, due to its placement near the brachial plexus, the bundle of nerves under the arm. Inflammation in the subscap can interfere with these nerves, causing tingling or numbness down the forearm and into the hand, similar to the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome.

Besides mimicking a disorder, the subscap is itself often the culprit of another serious condition – frozen shoulder. Although this disorder has a number of specific causes, it’s more generally due to the thickening of ligament fibers in the shoulder joint, which very often start from trigger points and inflammation in the subscapularis.

(If you ever needed a good reason to take care of your subscap, there’s two of them.)

As I mentioned above, many people don’t realize that they have tension in these muscles. So how do you know if they need care? Pay attention to your posture; if you have a habit of hunching over, try to relax your muscles and open up your chest. And try out this stretch, which works on both the pecs and subscap. If the stretch is painful, or if your muscles feel more achey than relieved afterwards, go get a massage!


Wrists and Elbows
Shoulders and Chest
Back and Shoulders

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