Sternocleidomastoid: The Obliques of the Neck

The sternocleidomastoid (SCM) muscles carry powerful mojo in the world of neck pain and movement dysfunction. They can easily ‘punk you’ out (make you chase pain/symptoms) because they rarely if ever physically hurt, yet they can cause so much pain and chaos everywhere else. Most people don’t know they have an SCM problem until someone touches the muscles and they wince in pain or they are muscle tested for activation. The SCM is guaranteed to be factor in any whiplash type of injury.

Why are they so important and why are they called the ‘obliques’ of the neck?

Because they do so many motions, just like the abdominal obliques. They are a linchpin to neck function and efficient movement. The SCM’s flex the neck, laterally bend the neck, and rotate the neck. Exactly like the obliques do for the torso (flex, side bend, and rotate). And just like the SCM, abdominal obliques rarely if ever physically hurt. But they too cause chaos in the movement system. You may also include the scalene muscles in this oblique comparison for they also flex, side bend, and laterally rotate the neck. Rest assured, if you have a sternocleidomastoid problem you will probably have a scalene one too.:)

The sternocleidomastoid is part of many movement chains and fascial lines (Thomas Myers Anatomy Trains), thus impacting the kinetic chain of force transmission. If you cannot efficiently absorb, disperse, generate and release force you will develop pain via ‘energy leaks’ in the movement system. The brain and body will take the path of least resistance in movement and dysfunctional SCM’s will contribute to these energy leaks.


What are some of the symptoms you may feel from a dysfunction in the SCM’s?

  1. Headaches
  2. Migraines
  3. Neck pain
  4. Ear pain
  5. Sinus congestion
  6. Eye pain
  7. Shoulder pain
  8. Back pain
  9. Hip pain

Very simple ways to assess balance between each SCM.

Lie on your back. Flex your chin to your chest and then rotate your head to one side and hold for 10 seconds. Be sure to not hold your breath and relax arms by your side palms up. Repeat on the other side and notice if there is a difference. Most often you will note a weakness or shaking in one side if there is a problem. If you have pain during the assessment STOP the test.

Another assessment is to lightly squeeze the muscle between your fingers and note any pain. Is there a difference? Do you feel referred pain into the face or head? If so, that may indicate a trigger point (muscle knot).

If you discover a difference in these assessments consult a qualified healthcare provider to assess them further and begin a therapy program.

Whats’ the takeaway?

Assess the SCM’s with any pain condition. I jokingly say, ‘If you come in and tell me your little finger hurts, I will be checking your SCM’s and abdominal obliques.’ I encourage you to take a closer look at these powerhouse players in the musculoskeletal pain and performance game. You will be on the fast track to changing many lives, starting with your own.