You know who’s a great cartoonist with a long career and a long neck? Alison Bechdel. And she’s a genius. I saw an image of her online and started thinking about cartoonists and their neck muscles.
Have you ever woken up with your neck so stiff and painful that you can’t turn your head? This often happens after sleeping on a couch; or if the pillow fell off the bed in the middle of the night and your neck is all scrunched up; or after long hours of drawing– I think you artists know what I’m talking about.
In my experience as a massage therapist and a cartoonist who occasionally finds herself the victim of that horrible “crick” in the side of her neck, the muscle to perform some gentle emergency stretching on is the levator scapula!

Anatomy Lesson!

The levator scapula attaches to the side of the vertebrae at the top and middle of the neck. The muscle runs down the side of the neck and attaches to the top inner corner of your shoulder blade (a.k.a. the scapula).

I thought it would be fun to anatomize an Alison Bechdel self-portrait. Although I can’t draw like her, I can draw her! Her levator scapula, anyway. Here you can see the muscle coming off the side of her neck vertebrae and moving back behind her upper ribs to the top of her scapula.

Guess what the muscle does?
Never mind, I’ll tell you: it raises the shoulder blade (elevates the scapula) and side-bends the neck to the same side. If you have two shoulder blades, you have two muscles. When both the levator scapula muscles work together, they can also help to straighten (extend) the neck.
Do comics makers with longer necks have more neck injuries than those with shorter necks? Probably not. It’s how you use your muscles– not their length– that is going to make the difference. If you are sleeping on one side with your shoulder all scrunched up, this muscle can go into spasm. If you are drawing with one shoulder lifted and your head pushed forward, this muscle can go into spasm. If you are typing or texting with your head forward and your shoulders all hunched up…you get the idea.

Loosen Up!

You can warm up and loosen the levator scapula with some gentle shoulder rolls. This should be pain-free movement. Take the shoulders forward towards your chest, up towards your ears, back to pinch them together, and down towards your armpits a couple times. Breathe deeply while doing this. Then reverse your circles (back, up, forwards, down) while you breathe. Now you are ready to stretch.

If the creator of Dykes to Watch Out For were to do shoulder rolls and we could see her levator scapula muscle, I bet it would look like this!

Stretches

A muscle moves your joints by shortening. Muscle spasms often hold the muscle in a short position. To stretch a muscle, you do its opposite action. The trick to stretching the levator scapula muscle is to stretch it at the neck and shoulder. So to stretch it, we have to do some combination of lowering the shoulder blade and bending the neck sideways (away from the target muscle) or forward.
REMEMBER: If your neck is super-tight and painful, do not force a stretch! If the stretch hurts, stop! Do it less, or stop doing it altogether. Hurting a painful muscle even more will not make it better!

I bet A.B. does this stretch. Everyone does this stretch at some point in their lives.

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#1 – The Side Stretch

Stick your hand in your pocket or sit on your hand. This anchors the shoulder and the base of the muscle. Then side-bend your neck away from your shoulder and look down towards the floor. Breathe in and out slowly, three times. Use your free hand to help lift your head as you straighten back up. Roll your shoulder around a couple of times. Stretch the other side.

#2 – Yoga Down Dog Variation

Spread your fingers out and put your hands on a wall, about waist height. Take a deep breath in. Exhale, and keeping your hands on the wall, walk your feet away until your arms are reaching “over” your head and are parallel to the floor. Hang your head forward (down towards the floor) between your hands. Try and keep your trunk straight. If you can keep your knees straight, great. If you can’t, let ‘em bend! Either way you can get an excellent hamstring stretch while stretching out that pesky levator scap’! Breathe in and out slowly three times. Walk your feet slowly back towards the table.

Although it is counter-intuitive, this stretch does actually pull the levator scapula shoulder attachment down as the arms go up, overhead, lengthening the muscle. I have no idea whether A.B. would wear yoga pants like this.

I’ve heard rumors that Alison Bechdel is an advocate of injury prevention and self care. How could she not be? She has been drawing for at least 30 years! Want to draw for at least 30 years too? Start taking care of your most important drawing equipment: you!