Levator Scapula Muscle

Levator Scapula Muscle - Attachments, Action, Nerve

Skeleton showing neck and back muscles.
The levator scapula muscles attaches on the top inside border of your shoulder bone and goes to the neck. SCIEPRO/Science Photo Library/Getty Images

Levator Scapula Muscle

The levator scapula muscle is a member of the superficial layer of the extrinsic back muscles.  The levator scap (or levator) as it is often called for short, is generally regarded as a shoulder muscle.  (Levator means "to lift" and scapula refers to the shoulder blade bone.)  

But at you will learn, the levator scap very much influences neck motion, neck pain, and upper back posture. Below is the basic information about this muscle - the kinds of things you'd need to know for a test, i.e., where it attaches, what it does, and which nerve services it.  Then, on the next page, there's the real juice - issues concerning the levator scapula muscles therapists and those in the know like to discuss.  

Levator Scapula:  Muscle Origin, Insertion, Action, Nerve and Synergists

Origin: Posterior tubercles of the transverse processes of the 1st 4 cervical vertebrae.

Insertion: Vertebral (i.e., medial, or inner) border of scapula between the superior medial angle and the scapular spine.  In other words, the levator scap is located on the above the spine of the scapula, not on it.

Action: Elevates the scapula and inferiorly rotates the glenoid cavity.  The levator scapula also works with the upper trapezius muscle to elevate and adduct the scapula (i.e. to bring the shoulder blade up and also in towards the spine.  

When the scapula is stable (called "fixed") the levator laterally flexes (i.e. tilts to the side) and slightly rotates the cervical spine.

Nerve Supply:  C5 - Dorsal scapular nerve and C3 and C4 - Cervical nerves.

Synergists: Rhomboids and trapezius.  These muscles act as helpers to the levator scapula.

Related:  What Exactly is a Crick in the Neck?


Moore RJ. The vertebral endplate: disc degeneration, disc regeneration. Eur Spine J. 2006;15 Suppl 3:S333-S337. doi:10.1007/s00586-006-0170-4. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2335377/

Wheeless, C., MD. Levator Scapula. Wheeless Textbook of Orthopaedics. Duke Orthopaedics. Last Updated: Dec 2011. Accessed June 2015. http://www.wheelessonline.com/ortho/levator_scapula

Levator Scapula Muscle's Role in Forward Head Posture

Woman craning her neck to see her laptop screen.
Forward head posture. AndreyPopov

One problem that office workers (as well as other types of people) endure is a tight, painful levator scapula muscle.  And the internet abounds with how to videos and articles on ways you can stretch and relax this key shoulder and neck muscle.

Why Stretching the Levator Scap Isn't Always the Answer to Pain

But according to Thomas Meyers, originator of Anatomy Trains, which is a map of the body's fascia that links muscles into units based on their functioning, when it comes to the levator scapula, a stretch based treatment doesn’t go far enough.

While it’s true, Meyers says, that it feels good to relax a tight levator, this is generally a temporary fix.  He says what’s happening is that one of the general, ongoing jobs of the levator muscle is to keep your head from moving too far forward.  When it does this job, the end that attaches on the scapula (shoulder blade) is supposed to be stationary (this is called "fixed") while the other end produces the movement.  As the levator works in this way, it contracts eccentrically, which means it gets long and provides flexibility while it does its work. 

Related: Forward Head Posture

Problem is, the shoulder blade is an extremely moveable bone. Keeping it steady in order to keep the neck back is no easy feat.  You might liken this venture to standing on a small surfboard in a wavy ocean or lake while holding a laptop and composing an email.  

So with an unstable base and a lengthening contraction that promotes movement and flexibility, the levator is at risk for getting too stretched out to be functional.

Combine this set up with the constant influence that sitting at a desk has on the neck (think hunchback posture), and you can see that the levator's job of keeping a vertical alignment of head, neck & shoulders is monumental.  In fact, for most people, the challenge is simply too great.  Consequently, the shoulder blade rides up toward the head, making the area of the levator near the shoulder blade very tense, indeed.

Related: Release Tight Neck Muscles with a Workstation Adjustment

Alternate Strategy for the Neck and Shoulder "Spot" Tension

Meyers suggests two things that may help with levator scapula.  One, which is beyond the scope of this article except to mention it, is to release the facial covering around the levator and other muscles that conspire with it to get the job done.  The other is to strengthen two nearby muscles - the spenius capitis and splenius cervicus.  These muscles do approximately the same job as the levator and are usually weak, he says.  Developing their strength may lighten the workload of the levators.

Related:  Neck Extension and Rotation Exercises

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