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Spare a thought for your armpits

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

Here are some myofascial self help exercises to release restrictions in your armpits:

 

40 Comments

  1. Janet

    So helpful & concise but I’m a fitness instructor with extremely tight trigger points in the axilla area and am always stretching that area. Mind you I moved lately & at 75 that was a struggle! Could I have overdone the activities. In my spare time I ballroom & square dance so lots of arm’s overhead when twirling

    Reply
  2. Janet

    So helpful & concise but I’m a fitness instructor with extremely tight trigger points in the axilla area and am always stretching that area. Mind you I moved lately & at 75 that was a struggle! Could I have overdone the activities. In my spare time I ballroom & square dance so lots of arm’s overhead when twirling … No this is my first comment ever! jan

    Reply
    • amanda oswald

      I’m glad to hear this is helpful – thank you for your comments!

      Reply
  3. Elaine

    Amazing information, I have all these simptomas and already start stretching at the door.

    I would like to know if deep tissue / remedial massage in underarms can help stretching the muscles as well or if not recommended due to sensible region as well.

    Thank yoiu

    Reply
    • amanda oswald

      I’m glad to hear you’ve found this useful. Myofascial release treatment in and around the armpit area can certainly help to reduce symptoms. We have a therapist directory on our website with details of therapists who have trained with us: https://paincareclinic.co.uk/directory/

      Reply
  4. Mark bryan

    I have been dealing with burn and itching in arm pit and under arm.
    As my under arm lays on arm pit it feels itchy burny and I think Ian feeling rub pain under both arm pits?
    It could be iam over focusing but it is uncomfortable.
    Why does arm pit and underarm itch burn along with ribs under arm pits achy and sore bless you and thanks for any thoughts you might have
    Mark. 904 616 3578

    Reply
    • amanda oswald

      Hi Mark it is possible that restrictions in your armpit area are compressing the nerve endings and these are causing the itching and burning feeling. I’d suggest trying the exercises for a few weeks and see how these affect the sensations.

      Reply
    • N

      I have the same issue for months now , did anything help you ?
      Thank you

      Reply
  5. Maria

    Thank you so much. I’ve been in pain for a few months with pain in my arm pits and worsened RSI in my hands (which I’ve had over 25yrs). I read that, thinking yup that’s me, that’s me. The exercises have really helped thank you!

    Reply
  6. Lynne Fitzharris

    Ever since my physio therapist took the first stroke up my left arm and into my armpit actually touching my ribs and 5mm lymph node my left ribs armpit and side of left breast have been very sore and sensitive sometime s to the point where I need medication or to take off clothing touching that area (like a shingles feeling with the blisters )
    My breast implants where put in via cuts in my arm pits and even the 20 year old scar now feels sore . Can physio be t rough it definitely hurt me very much and I had to ask her to back off but is had already hurt me ?

    Reply
    • amanda oswald

      From what you have described I would think the scars from your surgery may be the cause of the sensitivity. Even though they are old they can still cause problems. It would be an idea to seek out a myofascial or scar work therapist who can work gently and with sensitivity to help release some of the restrictions that have formed.

      Reply
  7. Julia

    These are wonderful, but I really struggle to breathe during the doorframe stretch- I suspect from years of terrible posture and shallow breathing. Does anyone else experience similar?

    Reply
    • amanda oswald

      Perhaps try a more gentle stretch, ie just going into the stretch until you start to feel resistance in your body and wait there for things to release. And also maybe try stretching out one side at a time as opposed to both together.

      Reply
      • Sana

        What is the band like structure felt when pushing upwards in the armpit. I was searching for tender spots in my right armpit as I was having pain on that side/shoulder (which is normal for me since that side is recovered from a shoulder tear and tendonitis through pt) and while massaging around I felt the band deep within my armpit while pushing upwards. This caused a lot of pain, what was that and did I just redamage a tendon or something. I did not have any previous surgeries.

        Reply
        • amanda oswald

          From what you have described you are probably feeling the tendon of the latissimus dorsi which is a muscle on your back/side that attaches into the humerus (the bone of your upper arm). The function of this muscle is to help move your shoulder and arm, particularly when reaching or pulling up. It is also attached to your ribs so has a role in breathing. The painful points you are feeling are probably trigger points around the attachment to the humerus. These could have formed as a result of your earlier tear and tendinitis. You can treat these points with gentle and sustained pressure for 90 seconds – 2 minutes at a time, or until the pain subsides. Rather than use your thumb (and cause damage to that) try using a ball.

          Reply
          • Shanae

            Thank you for sharing this. I deal with chronic pain and my neck, shoulders, and armpits end up very tense. This is so helpful. Thank you!

          • amanda oswald

            Glad to be of help!

  8. Jennifer

    Mine are so tight, I cannot shave my armpits anymore. I’m in my late 40’s and began noticing this “tight band” in front of my armpits about 5 years ago. I am just beginning weight training and I’ve never heard of this. I simply noticed that there is no room to properly shave my armpits anymore. I came here seeking answers, and it doesn’t seem a common topic. I’d love to loosen these tight areas to prevent further issues.

    Reply
    • amanda oswald

      From what you’ve described it sounds like you have very tight pecs/chest muscles. From our exercise I would recommend using balls on your chest and the chest doorway stretch as a starting point, however you probably need to focus on releasing the tissues on both the front and back of your armpits. I would respectfully suggest that weight training is probably the worst thing you could do as it will only further tighten this area. Instead consider more movement based activity that stretches your body out such as swimming and/or yoga.

      Reply
  9. Gisela

    Hi, I have been looking for some help for almost 2 years now. I used to exercise a lot, when the pandemic started I had to adapt to stay at home and keep with my exercise routine, so I started exercising with elastic bands and body weight. It was easy so I guess I over did it. One day after doing push ups, I felt a “pull” I am not sure how or when, but I stopped my routine. After that day, I got a big lump in my armpit, extremely painful. I had to walk with my arms up, I was not able to wear a bra, it was extremely painful. Later I got a lot of pain in my shoulder, neck and head, everything was very tight, hot and I cannot stand up, my head felt heavy. After going to some physical therapies, trigger point therapy, several doctors, mammograms, studies, today, they have not found what is happening! This is not an infection, they have done mammograms and ultrasounds looking for anything related to cancer and everything is clean thanks God. But after two years, the painful lump still here. I have been able to use some red light therapies that have helped with the pain in my shoulder and neck but I have not been able to go back to my exercise routine. Today I cannot try to do 10 push ups, the lump grows and becomes even more painful, as a reminder that it is there. The kind of exercises that I can do now, are limited and even being careful, the lump shows up again. I am sure this should be something related to muscles or tendons, but I have not found anybody that can help with this. I really would like to have your professional opinion, I do not like getting use to live in pain.

    Reply
    • amanda oswald

      I’m sure you will understand it is very difficult to give an opinion without having met you. However, if all the medical tests you have had so far are showing up as clear, then it is most likely that the issue is to do with the soft tissues (muscles and fascia) as these do not show up on usual medical diagnostics such as scans. The incident you describe sounds like a muscle tear and therefore the lump could be scar tissue which is aggravated when you try to do the exercise that first caused the problem. It also explains the referred pain in your head, neck and shoulder. I would suggest you seek out a myofascial and/or ScarWork therapist who may be able to help.

      Reply
  10. Mark

    Hi
    I have discomfort and dull ache under the armpits also think the skin is rubbing with light brown stain. I also have the urge to tense the muscle under the arm and also squeeze like I have wings. Will the exercises work for my problem

    Many thanks for your help

    Reply
    • amanda oswald

      The symptoms you have described could be due to fascial tension so Wwy not try the exercises and see if they help?

      Reply
  11. AJ

    Hi the skin in my armpits have boon sore along with the bottom ribs. My ribs hurts to do a brisk walk for an hour.. and I can’t lift my arms higher than my head but only at certain angles. I’ve been to the dr and was told that I may have bruised muscles??? It’s been over a month and still sore . Not sure what exercise I can do do relieve the pain. I use to work out a lot but couldn’t do much due to a knee surgery so recently started back slowly around 2 months ago. Can you suggest something please. The skin around my armpits is so tight as if something is shredding inside when I lift my arms up to put my clothes on. I came across your article to find solutions. Thanks

    Reply
    • amanda oswald

      From what you’ve described I would think your history of working out has created restrictions in the fascia around your armpits, chest and upper back. This would cause the restricted movement you describe, as well as the sense of something shredding when you lift your arms. I would suggest you stop lifting weights for now and concentrate on myofascial stretches and exercises to start to loosen the tissues. You can have a look at our YouTube channel – Pain Care Clinic – where there are short videos of exercises, including one for armpits. I’d also recommend you find a myofascial release therapist near you and get some treatment. If you’re in the UK we have a therapist directory (link on home page, top right) of therapists who have trained with us and will be able to help.

      Reply
  12. itssania01

    Hi. My right shoulder/underarm area has pain every now and then which is normal for me after I had an interstitial tear and shoulder tendinitis (have recovered months ago from pt) to alleviate the pain, I do my pt exercises and massage the tender spots. Yesterday, I was feeling around for tender spots in the underarm area and felt a band like structure when pushing upwards in the armpit. I feel this structure in the other armpit so I know it’s normal, as I also haven’t had any surgery so it’s not cording. I feel it by placing my thumb upwards in the armpit and moving it til I feel the band. But after I was feeling around that band like structure in my armpit, I felt a lot of pain. What exactly is that structure (a muscle, tendon, bone) and did I cause any damage or nerve compression by feeling around the area. The pain is about a 5/10

    Reply
  13. elizabeth

    hi! I saw you write so many great replies here and so I would love to ask you a question about my scapula pain. I have had it for a year and it’s getting worse. it’s the area right behind lower left shoulder blade and moving toward armpit, it feel so overtly tight and stretching makes it much worse even though it FEELS so tight. i have seen five pts and the exercises make it hurt more. it also feels like it is pulling from my sternum, it’s a very odd pain. I’ve seen an ortho and done mris and X-rays with nothing showing. the pain is worse when I do the motion of putting on a bra or reaching back for the seatbelt. I’m so desperate. It’s also beginning to feel stiff in the shoulder joint itself going into upper part of arm. I am thinking prolotherapy but it’s so expensive and no guarantee. I also have been told I have hypermobility possibly with EDS hence too much stretching.. i’ve also seen chiros because I thought maybe the rib was out of place because of pulling sensation but they said no. AnY advice would be AMAZING!!! Thank you so much.

    Reply
    • amanda oswald

      I think the good news is that you have had diagnostic tests and seen professionals but they have not found any underlying structural issue. It is therefore more likely that the problem lies in restrictions that have formed in your muscles and fascia. This is particularly so because of your hypermobility where the soft tissues have to work harder to maintain joint stability. The spreading pain that you describe is most likely due to these restrictions and trigger points that will have formed. The shoulder joint is normally very mobile and part of this mobility comes from the free gliding movement of the scapula over the ribcage. If soft tissue restrictions form then they restrict the movement of the scapula, so every time you move your shoulder/arm this pulls on the restrictions and causes both localised and referred pain. As you say, stretching going to be less effective for you due to your hypermobility. In the short term I’d suggest using a myofascial ball to help release the restrictions, but I’d also suggest you find a local myofascial release specialist and book in some appointments for treatment. I’m not sure where you are located – in the UK you can have a look at our therapist directory on the our home page, or if in the USA you can search for the John Barnes therapist directory.

      Reply
      • elizabeth

        hi, thank you so much to address my comment, very grateful! I have tried a lot with the lacrosse ball but to no relief, it feels like it’s trying to release but the pain for instance when wrapping a towel or hooking a bra, seatbelt is so painful like a band of thick cord almost. and now it’s moving into my upper arm, when it rotates. I would love your thoughts on whether you think I should continue to try releasing or that is making it potentially worse. I also hear a lot of prolotherapy, do you do this? thank you again!

        Reply
        • amanda oswald

          Lacrosse balls are very hard and not really suitable for myofascial release of already sensitised tissues. Instead try an inflatable myofascial ball which gives a more diffuse pressure and is far kinder to your body You can buy these from our website or Amazon – Living Pain Free brand. My main advice is to seek out a myofascial release therapist to help with your current restrictions and pain issues.

          Reply
  14. Vicki Luttrell

    Had a fall down 20 stairs over 35 years ago and ended up in hospital .
    As we were on holiday and moving on the next day ,I discharged myself so not to spoil holiday for others . Since then , I’ve had neck , top of shoulder , shoulder blade ( all around ) arm and underarm and just below and around underarm pain . Have seem many doctors who say fibromyalgia ( sure it’s not ) and so many painkillers that don’t work . Also have had MRIs that showed tear in supraspinatus ( 4x3x1 cm ) and bursitis in both shoulders , for which I have cortisone injections up to 3 times a year due to pain . Have also had 2 in neck . Both help for several months . However no answer for other issues .
    I haven’t had a nights sleep in that 35 year plus time due to so much pain at night in shoulders and neck and across upper back .
    Have seen physics and chiropractors for years – no help , plus acupuncture for months and dry needling , plus massage long term .
    Now have a new masseur who says muscles tighter than anyone he’s ever seen and thinks neck and shoulder problem . Doctors disagree .Have also developed a bony lump at base of neck about 6 months after the fall which I think contributes to forward tilt now of head and neck . Also had another fall bushwalking nearl two years ago which has exacerbated issues ( landed heavily on right shoulder and smashed mt face which was so badly bruised doc said she’d seen less damage in car accident victims ) .
    Any suggestions to help pain , PLEASE ????

    Reply
    • amanda oswald

      From what you have described your pain could well be due to restrictions that have formed in your fascia, initially from your fall, and then not resolved since. Part of the restriction pattern will also be scar tissue, which is just another form of fascia and soft tissue restriction. When fascial restrictions form they can restrict the tissues encased within it including muscles, nerves, blood vessels and bones. This can lead to pain restricted movement from the muscles, pain from compressed nerves, and irritations such as bursitis. I don’t know where you are located but I would suggest you seek out a local myofascial release therapist to help. Even after 35 years fascial issues can still be resolved. In the UK you can have a look at our therapist directory on the our home page, or if in the USA you can search for the John Barnes therapist directory. It might also be worth seeking out a therapist trained in Sharon Wheeler’s ScarWork and BoneWork (online search for their therapist directory) as this approach specifically deals with scar tissue and also helping with bone malformation. It is quite likely that some of your pain may be referred from other parts of your body, so your therapist may work not just on your neck & shoulders.

      Reply
  15. elizabeth

    hi, thank you so much to address my comment, very grateful! I have tried a lot with the lacrosse ball but to no relief, it feels like it’s trying to release but the pain for instance when wrapping a towel or hooking a bra, seatbelt is so painful like a band of thick cord almost. and now it’s moving into my upper arm, when it rotates. I would love your thoughts on whether you think I should continue to try releasing or that is making it potentially worse. I also hear a lot of prolotherapy, do you do this? thank you again!

    Reply
  16. Monica

    Hi! Thank you so much for posting this. When I do the first stretch, it cuts off the blood supply to the rest of my arm. Is this a symptom of tightness?

    Reply
    • amanda oswald

      It certainly sounds like this is the case. Either try this exercise without raising your arm over your head to get a general stretch in your side, or focus more on the ball exercises to help loosen the area around your armpit. If you can I’d also suggest you get some myofascial release treatment to help – we have a directory of therapists who have trained with us – https://paincareclinic.co.uk/directory/

      Reply
  17. Angelo Ruccia

    Hi there,

    My armpits burn from time to time over the last year or so. It seems to be more prevalent when I am working longer hours on my computers. Is this inflammation possibly caused by a restriction or posture? I have not noticed any lumps in my armpit region. Any help is appreciated! Thank you..

    Reply
    • amanda oswald

      I’d think the burning sensation is definitely due to restrictions and posture caused by long hours on computers. To work on a computer or any device you need to use fine movements of your fingers and hands. This means your body needs to brace your arms to maintain this control which builds up restrictions in the muscles and fascia around your armpits, neck, shoulders, upper back and chest. Likewise, most people tend to adopt a poor posture with long hours of screen time as their body is pulled forwards as you concentrate. This causes further restrictions in the same places. At the very least schedule regular breaks, every hour is best. Better is to do regular myofascial stretches and exercises to counteract your work – any of the videos on our YouTube channel can help. And if you want to reduce the burning sensations I’d suggest you schedule some myofascial release treatments – if you’re in the UK we have a directory on our website of people who have trained with us – https://paincareclinic.co.uk/directory/

      Reply
      • Angelo Ruccia

        Thank you for your advice!

        Reply
  18. Simran

    hlo I am 23 year old I want to know that I feel pain in my armpit sometime burning and itchy sensation also had pain in my shoulder why this happen?

    Reply
    • amanda oswald

      It’s hard to answer without knowing your history so assuming you have no other underlying conditions – generally pain and itchiness can indicate fascial restrictions in the area, and a common referral pattern is from the armpit to the shoulder as they have muscles and fascia in common. Common causes can include desk work, gaming and generally using devices where you are sitting still for prolonged periods, also lifting weights or manual work.

      Reply

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