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Suboccipital Muscles

Contents

Introduction

The suboccipital region is a muscle compartment, located inferior to the external occipital protuberance and the inferior nuchal line. These are anatomical landmarks on the occipital bone of the skull. It is of a pyramidal shape and includes the posterior aspects of the atlas and axis (C1 and C2 vertebrae respectively). This region comprises four pairs of small muscles:

  • Rectus capitis posterior major
  • Rectus capitis posterior minor
  • Obliquus capitis inferior
  • Obliquus capitis superior

These muscles mainly function as postural muscles but can also contribute to movements of the head.

Recommended video: Suboccipital muscles
Origins, insertions, innervation and functions of the suboccipital muscles.

Suboccipital Triangle

Three of the four muscles contribute to the formation of the boundaries of the suboccipital triangle: rectus capitis posterior major, obliquus capitis inferior and obliquus capitis superior. This triangle is a region of the posterior neck containing the vertebral artery and the dorsal ramus of the first cervical nerve (suboccipital nerve).

The superomedial and superolateral boundaries are formed by the rectus capitis posterior major and obliquus capitis superior respectively. The obliquus capitis inferior forms the inferolateral boundary. The roof of the triangle is formed by semispinalis capitis, which is one of the three parts of a deep intrinsic back muscle. The floor consists of the posterior atlanto-occipital membrane and the posterior arch of the atlas. Located deep to the semispinalis capitis is a layer of fibrous adipose tissue.

Muscles

Rectus Capitis Posterior Major

The rectus capitis posterior major originates from the spinous process of the axis by a pointed tendon. It becomes broader as it ascends and it inserts into the occipital bone at the lateral part of the inferior nuchal line. A triangular space is left between the two muscles resulting in visualisation of the recti capitis posterior minor muscles.

Rectus capitis posterior major muscle - dorsal view

Rectus Capitis Posterior Minor

The rectus capitis posterior minor has its origin at the posterior tubercle of the posterior arch of the atlas. Like the rectus capitis posterior major, it is attached to its origin by a narrowed tendon that broadens as it ascends upwards. Insertion of the muscle is also at the inferior nuchal line on the occipital bone but at the lateral part. There may also be a soft tissue attachment to part of the floor of the suboccipital triangle, namely the posterior atlanto-occipital membrane.

Rectus capitis posterior minor muscle - dorsal view

Obliquus Capitis Inferior

The obliquus capitis inferior is the only suboccipital muscle that doesn’t have an attachment to the cranium. It instead inserts into the transverse process of the atlas on the inferoposterior part. Its origin is at the posterior tubercle of the posterior arch of the axis.

Obliquus capitis inferior muscle - dorsal view

Obliquus Capitis Superior

The obliquus capitis superior is smaller than the obliquus capitis inferior and originates from the transverse process of the atlas. It ascends dorsally, whilst expanding in width, to insert between the superior and inferior nuchal lines, on the occipital bone, laterally to semispinalis capitis.

Obliquus capitis superior muscle - dorsal view

Blood Supply

All of the suboccipital muscles are supplied by the vertebral artery as well as by the deep descending branches of the occipital artery.

Innervation

The four pairs of muscles are all innervated by the dorsal ramus of the first cervical nerve, the suboccipital nerve.

Actions

As mentioned above, the main action of the suboccipital muscles is to maintain posture. However, they can also produce movements of the head. These movements include extension, lateral flexion and rotation at the atlanto-axial joints and are summarised below:

  • Rectus capitis posterior major – extension and rotation to the ipsilateral side
  • Rectus capitis posterior minor – extension and rotation to the ipsilateral side
  • Obliquus capitis inferior – rotation to the ipsilateral side
  • Obliquus capitis superior – extension and lateral flexion

Flexion and rotation of the head in the contralateral direction are other movements at the atlanto-occipital joint but are carried out by other muscles in the neck.

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Show references

References:

  • C. Fernández-de-las-Peñas, C. Alonso-Blanco, M. Cuadrado et al.: Myofascial trigger points in the subocciptal muscles in episodic tension-type headache. Manual Therapy (2006), volume 11, issue 3, p. 225-30.
  • C. Fernández-de-las-Peñas, M. Cuadrado, L. Arendt-Nielsen et al.: Myofasial trigger points and sensitization: an updated pain model for tension-type headache. Cephalagia (2007), volume 27, issue 5, p. 383-93. 
  • K.L. Moore, A.F. Dalley, A.M.R. Agur: Clinically Oriented Anatomy, 7th Edition, Wolters Kluwer/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins Health (2014), p. 485-494. 
  • S. Standring: Gray’s Anatomy The Anatomical Basis Of Clinical Practice, 40th Edition, Elsevier Health Sciences UK (2008), p. 742-3.
  • The Harley Street Spine Solutions: Suboccipital Syndrome. (accessed 8/05/2015).

Author, Review and Layout:

  • Charlotte O'leary
  • Martin Lalama
  • Catarina Chaves

Illustrators:

  • Rectus capitis posterior major muscle - dorsal view - Yousun Koh
  • Rectus capitis posterior minor muscle - dorsal view - Yousun Koh
  • Obliquus capitis inferior muscle - dorsal view - Yousun Koh
  • Obliquus capitis superior muscle - dorsal view - Yousun Koh
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