The Muscle, The Beast & And A Cup Of Tea
The sternocleidomastoid (the SCM) is one of those muscles massage therapists tend to avoid because there are so many cautions raised when learning how to work on the anterior neck. The first time we approach this area in school, we are greeted with all the red flags. Understandably so - no one wants to get sued. If your school and your teachers weren’t telling you to be careful, that would be an even bigger worry. The truth is, though, that the SCM can be manipulated to ease a lot of tension in the head and neck. If you know what you are doing.
If you know where the carotid artery is, the depth of the jugular vein, the proximity to the esophagus, the innervation of the spinal accessory nerve, the origin, insertion and action of the SCM itself AND the right techniques to apply - you’re golden! Psshhh… easy.
Or is it?
That is indeed a lot to remember. And this is only one tiny portion of anatomy. Bodywork around the Piriformis, the Adductors and the Subscapularis (to name a few) can be equally as daunting. What happens when we hit a nerve or compress a vein? What happens if we work too deeply? What if we actually hurt someone? Being careful is part of the bodyworker’s mantra, after all. The Hippocratic Oath was put forth for this exact reason. Do No Harm. We are here to help. Not hurt. We are supposed to heal. Not harm.
But what if the fear around the work overtakes the ability to actually do the work? Practicing while you were a student wan’t quite enough. The brevity of the average massage therapy program is only matched by the speed of its delivered content. And most likely, your classmate’s feedback was full of false hope. It is so much easier to be encouraging than it is to provide legitimate constructive criticism.
Then, once you are out in the real world working with real clients, staying safe feels pretty logical. And staying comfortable is just too easy. Pretty soon, you are 5 years in and still avoid the SCM like the plague. (Or should I say COVID now?)
The question is, how will you know when you know what you know? Or - in other words - when will you feel confident to work in an area you have been given so many warnings about?
The answer is never. No I’m just kidding. The answer is actually buried deeply in your relationship to fear.
It is very easy to let fear take over. In bodywork. And in life. It is a beast and can be extraordinarily intimidating. Like a bully that pokes you right on the sternum just to remind you that it is in charge, fear wants to intimidate you and keep you in your place.
There are an enormous amount of things to be frightful of, after all. Pinching a nerve. Bruising. Inflammation. Coronavirus. Politics. Social media.
But fear remains the thing to fear the most. When fear knocks on our door, it is important to not let it in and make itself at home. It will most definitely commandeer your life. It will remind you incessantly that you will feel the shame of all of humanity if you fail.
What you need is someone on your side you can trust. Ask a friend, a family member, or a trusted colleague if you can practice on them. Most people are usually game for a free massage. The key here is going to be finding someone who is game for some genuine communication. Before you even start, have them place one hand on The Trail Guide To The Body (otherwise known as the Massage Therapist’s bible) and the other hand in the air and solemnly swear to honestly tell you when anything feels uncomfortable.
Then, open your Trail Guide, or website or whatever trusty anatomy reference you prefer, and start to palpate the SCM. As you do, remember the following:
1. This is a long muscle that pulls at two relatively small attachments. Don’t move it around a lot as it is not anchored down onto much.
2. There is no baseboard behind it so do not compress down directly on to it.
3. The front of the neck is yin which means it is vulnerable which means it is to be approached gently.
4. Play around with the movements of the head and feel how it softens or lengthens with each shift in position.
5. Do NOT forget that this is a learning moment and not an effort to impress. Growing your confidence means changing your relationship with fear. Remain aware of when the beast is trying to get your attention. And then think about how you want to respond.
Instead of ignoring the knock, perhaps you open the door. Invite fear in and offer it a cup of tea. Give it a moment to speak, then decide that you can choose to listen or choose to quiet the beast. Pour that tea in a to-go cup. And send fear on its way.
Take a closer look at the things that are knocking on your door. Get to know the SCM in a little more detail. Learn how strong the surrounding vessels actually are. Proceed with awareness and grace. Change the way fear talks to you. Grow your confidence. The work you do is awesome. And your tea is delicious.
“Do one thing every day that scares you.”
― Eleanor Roosevelt