The Muscle, the Beast, and a Cup of Tea

Conquering Sternocleidomastoid Fears

By Allison Denney
[The Rebel MT]

The sternocleidomastoid (SCM) is one of those muscles massage therapists tend to avoid because cautions are raised when learning how to work on the anterior neck. When first approaching this area in our training in school, many red flags are raised by our instructors; understandably so—no one wants to get sued. (If your school and your teachers didn’t warn you to be careful, that is 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! Easy, right?

Well, 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.

But what if the fear around the work overtakes the ability to actually do the work? Practicing while you were a student wasn’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 classmates’ feedback was full of false praise. 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 five years in and still avoiding the SCM like the plague.


When Fear Knocks

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 warnings about?

The answer is actually buried deep 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. Fear is like a bully who pokes you right on the sternum just to remind you it is in charge. It wants to intimidate you and keep you in your place.

There are lots of things to be frightened 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 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 onto much.

2. There is no baseboard behind it so do not compress down directly on 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.


Invite Fear In

Instead of ignoring the knock, perhaps 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 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

  Allison Denney is a certified massage therapist and certified YouTuber. You can find her massage tutorials at She is also passionate about creating products that are kind, simple, and productive for therapists to use in their practices. Her products, along with access to her blog and CE opportunities, can be found at