I recently posed an online question to other therapists about what muscles they believe do not receive sufficient attention from bodyworkers. My suggestions was the SCM (sternocleidomastoid) muscle at the front of the neck. Other suggestions included the gluteal muscles, the pecs and abs which didn’t surprise me too much. However, a few therapists included the subscapularis muscle in their lists which I have to admit, is not a muscle I would normally spend a great deal of time on.
Their comments inspired me to have a look at subscapularis, what it does and why it may be important for some shoulder conditions.
Now the subscapularis muscle is part of the rotator cuff group, along with the teres minor, infraspinatus and supraspinatus muscles. These muscles work together to stabilise the humerus in the glenoid fossa of the shoulder. From a massage therapists terminology it attaches to the anterior surface of the scapula at the subscapular fossa and the lesser tubercle of the humerus. It’s action is to internally rotating and adducting the humerus (along with it’s stabilisation role).
Pain and dysfunction in the subscapularis muscle often manifests as an inability to lift the arm above the shoulder (although it should be mentioned that not being able to lift the arm above the shoulder does not necessarily indicate that there is an injury to the muscle as there are other conditions which have the same impact on lack of shoulder mobility). It is often the case that someone who spends a lot of time in front of a computer may very well have some dysfunction of the subscapularis, such as trigger points (this applies to anyone who works with their arms out in front of them including massage therapists!).
Pain that is due to dysfunction of the subscapularis can manifest in a number of different ways, it can be sharp and located in the shoulder, deeper or at the top of the shoulder. It can refer down the arm. There can be impingement of the brachial nerve which can lead to numblike sensations or tingling down the arm. The pain can gradually appear over time or, in the case of an acute incident, it can happen at an instant (throwing or pitching a ball is commonly cited as a major contributer to subscapularis injuries). Subscapularis therapy is often indicated when a client is recovering from frozen shoulder.
Massage for the Subscapularis
Access to the subscapularis is limited particularly when a client is lying prone and most therapists prefer to do their subscapularis bodywork with the client either supine or in a side-lying position. Examples of supine and sidelying subscapularis massages are shown in the videos below.
Dr Ben Benjamin advocates using friction treatments to address subscapularis tendon injuries and claims that it can be a remarkably effective treatment for most muscle, tendon and ligament injuries. Friction massage for the subscapularis can be mildly unpleasant and should be performed from 5 to 15 minutes and is demonstrated on the video below.