Suboccipital Muscles And The Eyes

body work May 12, 2023





The suboccipitals are immensely fascinating. While they move the head and neck, their critical importance lies in the fact that they serve as a sensory system, gauging where the head is in space and coordinating balanced movement throughout the rest of the body.

These muscles are intimately connected to eye movements, and together they support the vestibular system in forming our righting reflex. They contain an unusually large number of muscle spindles which tell the brain the exact position of the head and neck relative to gravity.  (The suboccipitals have 36 spindles per gram of muscle tissue whereas, for example, the gluteus maximus has less than 1 spindle per gram of tissue). 

Try this on a client: soften the outer muscle layers so that you have contact with the suboccipitals.  With your clients eyes closed, ask them to move their eyeballs from side to side without moving their head or neck. You should be able to feel that movement in the suboccipitals. Cool, right!

These richly innervated muscles set the tone for the paraspinal muscles. Eye tension from being on a computer all day is transferred to the suboccipitals which in turn transfers the tension down the spine into the pelvis. 

Take advantage of this neural connection by using eye movement when you work with the suboccipitals. 

For example: when doing a simple cranial hold with your fingers tips touching the suboccipitals, have your client move their eyeballs and notice if the tension in the suboccipitals decreases.

Here’s a sample protocol:

  • Rotate head to left about 20 degrees and find the right sub-occipitals.
  • Use circular friction, increasing pressure as the tissue releases.
  • Using direct compression locate any taut bands and trigger points in the suboccipitals.
  • Hold trigger points for about 10 seconds and ask the client if they feel any referred pain. Take the head and neck through both passive and active range of motion while working the muscles.
  • Coordinate the use of pressure with the client’s exhalations. Make at least two rounds of direct compressions. Repeat on other side.
  • Experiment with eye movement during this protocol. Eyes look in the opposite direction of rotation (occipital occular reflex )


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