The Overactive Trapezius and Massage: a Study

Sore shoulders and neck are no uncommon enemy – many individuals suffer from pains and aches in their upper body with localization in the neck and shoulders, or the mid and upper trapezius. The trapezius muscle, a muscle that extends from the lower thoracic vertebrae to the occipital bone and scapula, is prone to increased activity which translates to tension. When this muscle is subject to prolonged postural contractions, it can overload, making it susceptible to injuries including muscle trauma/pain and fatigue.

It comes as no wonder that many people complain of neck and shoulder pain; working conditions commonly include being seated in front of a desk with the neck strained forwards. Even at home, many find it comforting to stay seated for extended periods of time rather than standing or walking about. The pains can vary from mild to severe, even debilitating for some. New research looked at massage to alleviate the muscle activity and tension.

The study

Domingo et al. (2017) gathered 17 young adults for their study. The study lasted for 24 hours with two 30-minute interventions –  in one intervention, participants received a massage and the other consisted of quiet sitting. The researchers started the intervention by taking surface electromyography measurements (EMG), followed by massage or quiet sitting. After 5 minutes had passed, measurements were taken again and this procedure followed along until the 30 minutes were up.

The massage consisted of interlaced effleurage, petrissage, and friction at moderate pressure. The massage was performed on the upper shoulders and neck bilaterally, with the researchers spending equal time on each side.

The results

The researchers found there was a small decrease in the trapezius muscle activity during the quiet sitting intervention; however, this decrease was very small (1.0%) and proved insignificant. Trapezius muscle activity significantly decreased by 19.3% when a massage was given. These results showed even after only five minutes of massage had been provided.

These results implicate massage as a useful and simple tool to help ease the aches in the neck and shoulders, as well as minimize the chance of muscle trauma occurring by calming the muscle activity. For those who work daily in an office seated at a desk, asking a partner or roommate for a five-minute massage may help improve the effects of prolonged sitting.

While this research certainly sheds light on short massage combatting the pains of daily life, the researchers argue further studies are needed to investigate whether these results can provide long-term benefits towards bodily function and improved quality of life. Another area of study could delve into the benefits of calming an overactive trapezius muscle with a weekly or monthly massage. For those who are unable to receive a quick massage after a day of work, would a weekly or monthly massage suffice to alleviate the aches in the shoulders and neck until the next week or month?

Massage is well-known among the general population as a source of relief from muscle fatigue and trauma; this new research shows that by massaging a muscle that is prone to being overactive, massage can not only relieve pain but also prevent further injury, something of increasing importance in working life.


Domingo, A. R., Diek, M., Goble, K. M., Maluf, K. S., Goble, D. J., & Baweja, H. S. (2017). Short-duration therapeutic massage reduces postural upper trapezius muscle activity. NeuroReport, 28(2), 108-110. doi:10.1097/wnr.0000000000000718