The importance of armpits
If you find that you are sitting more than usual, which may include working in an unfamiliar and cramped home set-up, then spare a thought for your armpits. They’re probably not an area you think about much, in fact my grandmother’s generation actively discouraged mention other than passing reference to ladies “glowing” after strenuous exercise.
However, the armpit, or axilla (axillae, plural) to use its anatomical name, is an area of great complexity and clinical significance.
The axilla is a cone shaped area bordered by four walls formed of bones, muscles and fascia at the junction between your arm and torso. It also houses other important structures such as nerves, blood vessels and lymph nodes.
The axilla extends from the base of your neck, to your ribcage, the top of your arm and down to the skin that forms the surface of the armpit. Structurally it includes elements of your collarbone, shoulder blade, ribs, and arm bone as well as several significant muscles of your chest, back, shoulder and arm.
The nerves and blood vessels that pass through the axilla supply your chest, upper back, arm and hand. Also clustered here are most of the deep lymph nodes of the upper body, which explains why your armpits may become tender when you are ill as the lymph nodes swell to produce more white blood cells in the fight against the infection.
The problem with a tight axilla
With so many structures squeezed into such a compact space, their health is dependent on free movement of the axilla which changes in shape each time you move your arm and shoulder. Lack of regular movement leads to tight muscles and restricted fascia, which in turn lead to trigger points. A tighter axilla will also compress the nerves, blood vessels and lymph nodes, and distort their function.
Many seemingly unrelated pain conditions can be attributed to restrictions in your axilla. For example, the typical symptoms of RSI and thoracic outlet syndrome which include pain in hands, loss of grip strength, numbness, cold fingers, and swelling as lymph flow is impeded. Restricted movement of the connected bones can cause shoulder pain, often incorrectly attributed to frozen shoulder, or shallow breathing patterns if ribs are affected. Referred pain patterns from trigger points can extend up into your neck and head, or down into your back and lower torso
One of the most common causes of axilla restrictions is too much sitting still, especially working on laptops and mobile devices, as your body automatically assumes a hunched position as you work with your arms held tightly in front of you. The less you move your body, the more it assumes you don’t want to, and it will ‘helpfully’ respond by creating fascial restrictions to further compress areas of immobility such as your axillae.
Self-help for your axillae
Unsurprisingly, one simple way to help counteract this is by moving regularly. Fascial stretches of your arms, chest and shoulders can help to open out tight areas. Something as simple as a doorway stretch can really help to open out the whole axilla complex.
To do this, place your hands either side of a doorframe and take a step through to feel a stretch across your chest and into your axillae. Positioning your hands higher or lower will focus the stretch into different areas. If you do this as a slow, progressive stretch over a couple of minutes then you are helping to undo the problematic fascial restrictions.
Resting a myofascial ball on the side your armpit for 1-2 minutes can also help to release restricted areas and take the pressure off nerves and other pain sensitive structures.
You can find out more about effective self-help myofascial exercises in our Living Pain Free online video programme.