The Pectoralis Minor Muscle: Overlooked and Underused

Most of my clients seek massage therapy for pain relief – and that pain almost always being in the upper back and shoulders. Initially upon seeking treatment, it is believed by the client that the best approach is to get worked on right where the pain is felt. That’s human nature, right? When an area of the body hurts, our tendency is to massage that area. What we don’t realize is that the pain felt in the body is in areas that are weakened. Luckily for you, it is my job to seek an understanding as to why the pain is occurring. Quick action with immediate results would be for your therapist to massage the exact muscles where the pain is felt– but this approach does not create long lasting benefits that eventually alleviate the pain. As a matter of fact, this approach only makes the condition worse.

Seems counterintuitive, right? Lets take the Pectoralis Minor muscle as an example. This muscle is primarily responsible for pain felt in the upper back and shoulders.

The photo above shows the attachment sites of the pectoralis minor muscle. Quick anatomy lesson: muscles attach to the bones of the skeleton. So, when muscles contract, this creates movement. The photo above is an anterior (front) view of the right shoulder. It shows the pectoralis minor muscle attaching to the coracoid process of the scapula (shoulder blade) and the third, fourth and fifth ribs. Although this muscle is located on the front of the body, it attaches to the shoulder blade which is located on the back of the body.

This muscle is tense and contracted on almost all of my clients; with trigger points developing overtime. The reason for this is because of our lifestyles today. Everything we do is in front of us - touch, see, communicate, act. The activities we do on a daily basis today contribute to the shortening of this muscle. For example: computer work, driving, texting, writing, reading, etc. the list goes on. So, while we are spending prolonged periods of time shortening this muscle, the muscles on the back of our bodies are being overstretched and lengthened. Muscles that are overstretched and lengthened are weakened muscles, which is where pain is felt, as stated above. When seeking massage therapy, the best approach from a skillful therapist would be to assess the entire body, and most importantly, the antagonists (muscles that oppose the action) of the area of the body where the pain is felt.

The next photo shows the pectoralis minor muscle and a bundle of nerves called the brachial plexus. This bundle of nerves is responsible for sending signals from your spine to your shoulder, arm and hand. Prolonged tension in the pectoralis minor muscle eventually leads to compression of the brachial plexus, causing shoulder pain, numbness and tingling in all or any fingers, loss of strength in the hand/arm, and sometimes even coldness in the hand or fingers. These symptoms are exactly identical to symptoms of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Unfortunately, most medical Doctors do not specialize in the muscular system specifically. It is the job of a doctor to record your subjective symptoms, and pair that with a dysfunction that can be “treated” with pharmaceutical medicine or even surgery. Muscle tension is typically the last thing to come to the mind of the medical professional, unfortunately.

I have seen a few clients who have complained of these symptoms, and have even gotten surgery for their diagnosed carpal tunnel syndrome. The surgery did not provide relief for them, nor did the pain medication they were prescribed. As a surprise to them, after only one session of muscle therapy their symptoms of this condition were alleviate. Who would have known that their pain in the wrist was rooted in the chest!

If you are experiencing any of the listed symptoms above, I would highly recommend assessing your activities of daily living, and thinking about how this pain could have been caused. Think about how many hours in the day you are sitting at a workstation. Are you stretching any muscles on the front of the body? In addition to seeking massage therapy, doing stretches at home is a great way to promote balance in the body, eventually leading to living pain-free. Here are some stretches you can do at home to stretch this tiny but mighty muscle.

Using a doorway, place both hands on either side of the frame. Step one foot in front of the other and lunge forward, until you feel a deep stretch in the front of the chest. Reposition your hands higher or lower to stretch different muscle fibers of the pecoralis minor. Hold for 60-90 seconds and stretch as often as you’d like throughout the day!