Semispinalis Capitis, Cervicis, and Thoracis: Learn Your Muscles

There are three semispinalis muscles that help move and stabilize your head, neck, and thoracic spine. They are the semispinalis capitis, cervicis, and thoracis. Anytime you look up to the sky, you’re using your semispinalis muscles. Likewise, when you turn to look over your shoulder, it’s the semispinalis muscles.

You might not think about these actions and your ability to accomplish these tasks very often. However, for anyone who has had whiplash, the semispinalis muscles and their function (or dysfunction) is extremely noticeable. Here’s more about the muscles necessary for a smooth recovery from a neck injury.

Location

The semispinalis capitis originates from several locations on the spine. One point of origin is on the 7th cervical and 1st-6th thoracic transverse processes. Another point of origin is on the articular processes of 4th-6th cervical vertebrae.

semispinalis musclesAccording to my Flash Anatomy Flash cards, the insertion of the semispinalis capitis is “between the superior and inferior nuchal lines of the occipital bone.” The nuchal lines of the occipital bone are four lines that run across the back of your skull. The superior line is the top line, and the inferior line is the bottom line. So, the semispinalis capitis inserts on the back of your skull somewhere between the top line and the bottom line. For more information, here’s the link to the Wikipedia page on nuchal lines.

The semispinalis cervicis originates on the transverse processes of 1st-6th thoracic vertebrae and inserts on the spinous processes of 2nd-5th cervical vertebrae.

Similarly, the semispinalis thoracis originates on the transverse processes of the 6th-10th thoracic vertebrae and inserts on the spinous processes of the 1st-4th thoracic and 6th and 7th cervical vertebrae.

So, if you’ve noticed, these spinal muscles originate several vertebrae below their points of insertion. This makes these muscles similar to the erector spinae.

Function

Essentially, when you look up or turn to look over your shoulder, you are using your semispinalis muscles. To be precise, the semispinalis capitis extends your neck like when you look up to the sky. It also laterally flexes the neck and head like when you lower your ear toward your shoulder. Additionally, the semispinalis capitis rotates the head to the opposite side of the working muscle.

When the semispinalis cervicis works bilaterally, it extends the cervical spine. Unilaterally, it laterally flexes the neck and head. Also, it rotates the neck and head to the opposite side.

The semispinalis thoracis rotates the spine toward the opposite side of the working muscle.

Common Dysfunction

Although I’m sure there are many ways to damage the semispinalis muscles, whiplash is a frequent cause of pain and dysfunction of these muscles.

Restoring or Maintaining Health

If you are in pain or think that you may have injured yourself, please go see your doctor. Your doctor can order the appropriate imaging, therapy, and medicine to help you recover quickly.

However, if you are looking for at-home exercises to help keep these muscles strong and healthy, here are some suggestions. First, when you are doing a spinal rotation exercise such as Spinal rotation, Spine twist, or Simple seated twist; make sure to turn your head and continue the rotation. Have a focal point when you twist. Frequently, letting your eyes track to a specific spot will help you continue rotating. This mindful rotation will help strengthen the semispinalis muscles.

Also, take time to look up to the sky and down to the ground. These alternate movements will help you strengthen and stretch these muscles. Likewise, if you practice looking right and left, that will stretch and strengthen the semispinalis muscles.

More Information

I consulted The Concise Book of Muscles by Chris Jarmey. Recently, the book was revised and is in its third edition. I love this book as a quick go-to guide for easy to understand anatomy.

For those who are more interested in technical terminology and smaller muscles, I recommend Flash Anatomy Muscles Flash Cards. Any time a client comes to me with pain, I use these flash cards.

What’s your favorite way to strengthen your spinal muscles? Let us know in the comments below.

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About Sarah Stockett

Hi! I'm Sarah, and I'm a certified Pilates and yoga instructor with a passion for pain relief. When I'm not working with clients, I'm researching the best ways to get rid of pain. Do you want to learn how to practice yoga and Pilates safely in your own home? Or, do you want to know all my tips and tricks for pain relief? Join my mailing list and receive free goodies to help you.

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