Understanding the Sternocleidomastoid Muscle: Function, Anatomy, and Care

The Sternocleidomastoid (SCM) muscle is a vital component of the neck and crucial for head movement and stability. It helps rotate and flex the head, maintain posture, and aid breathing.

Despite its importance, the SCM is prone to various issues impacting overall health and mobility. This blog post delves into the anatomy and functions of this neck muscle, highlights common disorders, and outlines effective diagnostic and treatment strategies.

Anatomy of the Sternocleidomastoid Muscle

Sternocleidomastoid muscle

The Sternocleidomastoid muscle, named for its points of origin and insertion, is one of the neck’s most visible and vital muscles. Its unique anatomy not only contributes to its functions but also to its significance in the structural and functional integrity of the neck. Let’s explore its anatomy in more detail:

  • Location: The SCM muscle is prominently situated on either side of the neck, running obliquely from the sternum and clavicle to the mastoid process of the skull. This bilateral presence of Sternocleidomastoid muscles means there’s one SCM on each side, contributing to the symmetry and balance of neck movements.
  • Origins: The muscle has two distinct heads of origin:
    • The sternal head originates from the top part of the manubrium, which is the upper part of the sternum.
    • The clavicular head originates from the upper surface of the medial third of the clavicle.
  • Insertion: Both heads of the SCM muscle converge as they ascend the neck, inserting at the mastoid process of the temporal bone and the lateral portion of the superior nuchal line of the occipital bone. This bifurcated insertion point allows the SCM to facilitate a range of movements.
  • Innervation: The SCM is innervated by the spinal accessory nerve (cranial nerve XI), with additional contributions from the cervical plexus (C2-C3). This unique dual innervation is essential for the muscle’s complex functions, including its role in proprioception and movement.
  • Blood Supply: The muscle receives its blood supply primarily from the occipital artery and branches of the external carotid artery, ensuring it is well-nourished for its active and continuous role in neck movements.
  • Anatomical Relations: The SCM is near several vital structures, making its anatomy crucial for medical professionals to understand.
    • Anteriorly, it covers the carotid sheath, which contains the common carotid artery, internal jugular vein, and vagus nerve.
    • Posteriorly, the Sternocleidomastoid (SCM) muscle is closely associated with several key neck muscles, including the trapezius muscle, infrahyoid muscles, splenius capitis, and levator scapulae. These muscles work collaboratively with the SCM to facilitate and enhance the complex movements of the head and neck.

Understanding the anatomy of the Sternocleidomastoid muscle is crucial for medical professionals and individuals interested in their musculoskeletal health.

Its strategic position and connections highlight the SCM’s role in facilitating head and neck movements, maintaining posture, and its involvement in respiratory functions.

This detailed anatomical perspective underscores the importance of the SCM in our daily lives, from simple actions like turning our heads to complex postural adjustments that keep us balanced and upright.

Functions of the Sternocleidomastoid muscle

The Sternocleidomastoid muscle is not just a prominent landmark of the neck; it plays several crucial roles in the movement and support of the head, as well as in the broader context of bodily posture and respiration. Its functions can be understood in the following detailed aspects:

Head Movement and Rotation: One of the primary roles of the SCM is to facilitate the rotation (turning) of the head. When one SCM muscle contracts, it turns the head to the opposite side. For instance, contraction of the right SCM turns the head to the left and vice versa. This unilateral contraction is essential for many daily activities, such as looking over one’s shoulder.

Lateral Flexion of the Head: In addition to rotation, the SCM also contributes to lateral flexion, which is the movement of the head toward the shoulder on the same side. When the SCM on one side contracts without the opposing muscle’s action, it brings the ear closer to the shoulder on that side, demonstrating its role in the lateral bending of the neck.

Flexion and Extension of the Neck: When both SCM muscles act together (bilateral contraction), they flex the neck, bringing the chin closer to the chest. Interestingly, when acting in concert with the muscles at the back of the neck, the SCMs can also extend the head backward, highlighting their versatile role in both flexion and extension movements of the neck.

Elevation of the Sternum and Clavicle: The SCM plays a secondary yet significant role in deep forced inhalation. During forceful inhalation, such as when taking a deep breath, the SCM assists in elevating the sternum and clavicle. This action increases the volume of the thoracic cavity, facilitating the intake of a larger volume of air, which underscores the SCM’s contribution to respiratory mechanics.

Contribution to Posture: Beyond its immediate mechanical functions, the SCM is integral to maintaining proper head and neck posture. Its muscle tone and strength help balance the head on the cervical spine, which is crucial for the overall alignment of the spine and posture. Poor SCM function can lead to postural imbalances and contribute to conditions like forward head posture, which can have cascading effects on overall spinal health.

Proprioception and Sensory Input: The SCM is rich in muscle spindles, which are sensory receptors that provide feedback about muscle length and movement. This proprioceptive input is crucial for maintaining balance, coordinating movements, and ensuring the head moves smoothly and accurately in space.

Understanding the multifaceted functions of the Sternocleidomastoid muscle illuminates its significance beyond just a structural element of the neck. Its roles in facilitating nuanced movements of the head, contributing to the mechanics of respiration, and ensuring postural integrity showcase the SCM’s integral contribution to daily function and overall musculoskeletal health.

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Common Issues and Disorders Affecting the Sternocleidomastoid muscle

SCM to help you turn your head to the left or right

Despite its robustness and critical role in head and neck movements, the sternocleidomastoid muscle is susceptible to a range of conditions that can affect its function and cause discomfort or mobility issues. Understanding these common issues and disorders can help recognize symptoms early and seek appropriate treatment.

Muscle Strain: One of the most frequent issues affecting the SCM is muscle strain. This can occur due to sudden, awkward movements, overextension, or prolonged poor posture, especially in individuals who sit for extended periods or use devices without ergonomic considerations. Symptoms often include sharp pain, muscle stiffness, and decreased range of motion in the neck.

Muscular Torticollis (Wry Neck): Muscular Torticollis is a condition in which the head becomes twisted to one side, often due to the contraction or shortening of the SCM on one side. It can be congenital (present at birth) or acquired due to trauma, infection, or prolonged positioning. Symptoms include a visible tilt of the head to one side, limited range of motion, and discomfort or pain in the neck.

Myofascial Pain Syndrome: This chronic pain disorder is characterized by sensitive points within the SCM muscle (trigger points), leading to referred pain, which is pain felt in areas away from the actual site of irritation. It can cause headaches, neck pain, and even ear pain, mimicking other conditions and complicating diagnosis.

Thoracic Outlet Syndrome (TOS): Although not a disorder of the SCM itself, TOS can be related due to its anatomical proximity. The SCM muscle borders the thoracic outlet, and any condition leading to its tightening or enlargement can compress the neurovascular bundle passing through this area, leading to symptoms like pain, numbness, and tingling in the arms.

Sternocleidomastoid Syndrome: This less commonly recognized condition involves pain and tenderness in the SCM, potentially leading to vertigo, balance disturbances, and visual disturbances (blurred vision) due to the muscle’s proprioceptive roles. It is often a result of trauma, repetitive strain, or postural issues.

Impact on Posture and Alignment: Chronic conditions affecting the SCM can lead to or exacerbate poor posture, particularly forward head posture and cervical spine misalignments. These postural changes can, in turn, lead to a cycle of discomfort and dysfunction, impacting overall spinal health.

Symptoms and Causes:

  • Symptoms: Common symptoms across these conditions include neck pain, stiffness, reduced mobility, headaches, and, in some cases, neurological symptoms like tingling or weakness in the limbs. The presentation can vary widely depending on the underlying issue and its severity.
  • Causes: Causes can range from acute injuries like whiplash to chronic factors such as repetitive strain, poor posture, or underlying congenital conditions. Infections and inflammations can also precipitate or exacerbate issues in the SCM.

Understanding these common issues and their implications is crucial for both individuals and healthcare professionals. Early recognition and appropriate management can prevent progression and reduce the impact of these conditions on quality of life and functional mobility.

Diagnosis and Treatment of SCM Problems

Diagnosing and treating issues related to the Sternocleidomastoid muscle requires a detailed understanding of its functions and the typical disorders that can affect it. Proper diagnostic procedures and effective treatments are crucial for restoring function and alleviating symptoms associated with SCM problems.

Diagnosis of SCM Problems

Diagnosing Sternocleidomastoid muscle issues involves a combination of clinical evaluation and imaging techniques tailored to the presenting symptoms:

Clinical Examination: The first step typically involves a thorough physical examination, where a healthcare provider assesses the neck’s range of motion, palpates the muscle to identify areas of tenderness, and evaluates the posture and alignment of the head and neck. Special attention is given to the SCM muscle’s tone and length.

Medical History: A detailed history helps to identify potential causes of SCM issues, such as past trauma, patterns of recurrent pain, or activities that may contribute to muscle strain.

Imaging Tests: Imaging studies such as ultrasound, MRI, or CT scans can help provide a more detailed view of the muscle’s structure, detect any internal changes, or rule out other conditions that might mimic SCM symptoms.

Functional Tests: In some cases, specific functional tests that stimulate the SCM muscle or its nerve supply assist in assessing the muscle’s response and function.

Treatment of SCM Problems

The treatment of Sternocleidomastoid muscle disorders depends on the severity and nature of the condition:

Conservative Management: Initial treatment often involves conservative measures, such as:

  • Rest and Ice: Reducing activity that aggravates the muscle and applying ice to decrease inflammation and pain.
  • Medications: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or muscle relaxants can help alleviate pain and reduce muscle spasms.
  • Manual and Physical Therapy: Specialized exercises and manual therapies aim to stretch and strengthen the SCM muscle, improve range of motion, and correct postural issues.

Therapeutic Exercises: Patients may benefit from exercises that specifically target the flexibility and strength of the SCM:

  • Stretching Exercises: Gentle stretching exercises can help relieve tension and restore normal muscle length.
  • Strengthening Exercises: Building strength in the SCM and adjacent muscles can support better neck mechanics and reduce the risk of future injuries.

Advanced Interventions:

  • Trigger Point Injections: For cases involving myofascial pain, injections directly into the muscle can provide relief from chronic pain.
  • Surgery: Although rare, surgical intervention might be required if the SCM muscle is severely damaged or to correct congenital torticollis.

Alternative Therapies:

  • Acupuncture and massage therapy are alternative approaches that may provide symptomatic relief and aid in muscle relaxation.
  • Behavioral Modifications: Educating patients on ergonomic adjustments and lifestyle changes to prevent recurrent strain or further complications.

Follow-up and Monitoring: Regular follow-up is essential to monitor progress, adjust treatments as needed, and ensure recovery goals are met. Continuous education on self-care and preventive measures is vital in managing chronic conditions or preventing recurrence.

Effective management of SCM problems requires a holistic approach that addresses the disorder’s physical and functional aspects. Tailored therapies that meet individual needs are crucial for optimal recovery and maintaining long-term neck health.

Prevention and Self-care for Sternocleidomastoid Health

Maintaining the health of the Sternocleidomastoid muscle is essential for optimal neck function and overall well-being. Effective prevention and self-care strategies can mitigate the risk of developing SCM problems and promote long-term musculoskeletal health. Here are some key practices to consider:

Ergonomics and Workplace Adjustments

  • Proper Seating Posture: Ensure your workstation is ergonomically set up to support good posture. The top of your computer screen should be at eye level, and your chair should support your lower back while allowing your feet to rest flat on the floor.
  • Adjust Work Habits: Avoid prolonged static postures. Take regular breaks every 30 to 60 minutes to stretch and change position. This can help reduce muscle tension and fatigue.

Regular Physical Activity

  • Strengthening Exercises: Engage in exercises that strengthen the neck and shoulder muscles. Strong surrounding muscles can provide better support and reduce the burden on the SCM.
  • Flexibility Exercises: Incorporate routine neck and shoulder stretching into your daily schedule. This can enhance the flexibility of the sternocleidomastoid (SCM) muscle and help prevent stiffness.

Stress Management

  • Relaxation Techniques: Techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, or yoga can help manage and reduce stress, which often contributes to muscular tension, particularly in the neck and shoulders.
  • Regular Massage: Therapeutic massage can help relax tight muscles, improve circulation, and provide relief from muscle strain.

Nutrition and Hydration

  • Balanced Diet: A balanced diet rich in vitamins and minerals supports muscle health. Ensure adequate intake of magnesium and potassium, which are essential for muscle function.
  • Hydration: Staying well-hydrated is crucial for muscle health. Dehydration can lead to muscle cramps and increased stiffness.

Proper Sleep

  • Sleep Posture: Sleep in a position that supports the spine’s natural curve, with a pillow that supports the neck without causing it to bend unnaturally.
  • Quality of Sleep: Ensure you get enough restorative sleep, as sleep is crucial for muscle repair and overall health.

Awareness and Education

  • Understand Your Body: Learn about the signs of muscle strain and the activities that trigger discomfort. Awareness can prompt earlier adjustments and prevent minor issues from becoming severe.
  • Seek Professional Advice: If you experience ongoing neck pain or suspect an issue with your SCM, consult a healthcare professional for a tailored approach to management and treatment.

By implementing these preventive and self-care measures, individuals can significantly reduce the risk of SCM problems and enhance their overall neck and shoulder health.

Regular attention to these aspects of daily life ensures that the SCM muscle functions optimally, supporting a pain-free and active lifestyle.

Final Thoughts

In closing, the Sternocleidomastoid muscle is more than just a structural component of the neck— it is essential for a wide range of everyday activities that involve head and neck movement.

By understanding its anatomy, functions, and the common issues it can face, we can better manage its health through targeted prevention and care strategies. Whether it’s adjusting work ergonomics, engaging in regular physical exercise, or understanding when to seek professional advice, maintaining the health of the SCM is vital for overall well-being.

Taking proactive steps to care for this key muscle helps avoid discomfort and improves quality of life by ensuring complete and pain-free mobility of the neck and head.


PostureGeek.com does not provide medical advice. This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical attention. The information provided should not replace the advice and expertise of an accredited health care provider. Any inquiry into your care and any potential impact on your health and wellbeing should be directed to your health care provider. All information is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical care or treatment.

About the author

Nicholas Barbousas is the founder of PostureGeek.com and an experienced therapist with extensive expertise in human movement and physical conditioning. With over 30 years in the profession, he specializes in Rolfing Structural Integration, utilizing proven methods to enhance body alignment and functional health. As an educator and author, Nick has developed comprehensive programs in manual therapy, myofascial release, and fitness training, advancing the practice of manual and movement therapies through his contributions to PostureGeek.com.

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