If you've been suffering from upper back muscle pain then you are not alone, discomfort across the upper back, neck and shoulders is epidemic in our modern society of phones, computers and long commutes. But don't despair! Applying some simple principles of good posture alongside a little bit of awareness and some specific exercises can make a huge difference to your symptoms.
By Oliver Wakefield M.Ost and Louise Pratley M.Ost
If your upper back muscle pain is arising from your work or any hobbies or habits where you are static for long periods of time then the chances are you are suffering from something we call 'static postural muscle pain'.
Essentially when a muscle is over used for long periods of time it fatigues and builds up in lactic acid. This process causes pain in the muscle eventually leading to trigger points (or knots) and then shortening of the muscle. This dysfunction put excessive strain on joints, ligaments and disks leading to a generally uncomfortable and painful situation.
If you are not sure what's causing your pain then scroll to the bottom of the page to look at differentiating between mechanical and non-mechanical lower back pain.
The process of static postural muscle pain can look a little something like this:
Restriction at the top of the upper back
Poor posture at the desk loads the upper back and neck muscles, eventually causing compression and irritation through the upper thoracic vertebra leading to a fixed, hunched posture through the base of the neck.
Pain and restriction in the neck
As the upper back hunches forwards, the head is pushed as well leading to tighten of the neck muscles especially at the base of the skull potentially causing headaches, pain and restriction in neck movement especially rotating left and right.
Pain along the top and the front of the shoulders
As the head is pushed forward the trapezius muscles across the top of your shoulders contract to stop your head from falling further forwards. This causes the shoulder to drop forward causing pain and dysfunction not only across the top of the shoulders and into the neck but also at the front of the shoulders.
Upper back and shoulder blade pain
As the shoulders drop forward, the upper back flexes forwards causing a loading of your postural muscles in the upper back. The muscles which brings your shoulder blades together and fix your shoulders back begin to weaken, causing further dysfunction, restriction and pain.
Lower back pain
The final stage of static postural muscle pain is lower back pain, as the body slumps down, the curve in the lower back tends to decrease, causing an increased load through the intervertebral disks and ligaments at the back of the spine.
Does any of this sound familiar? If yes then read on.
If you spend a lot of time sitting then the chances are you experience some form of the upper back muscle pain that is outlined above. But what can be done?
While we would never claim to 'fix' or 'heal' anybody's upper back muscle pain, there IS a tremendous amount that can be done to minimise it's affects with very little effort.
Here are the top five tips recommended by the OFC for dealing with your upper back muscle pain, stiffness and other symptoms.
While it may sound obvious, the first step in any life changing intervention is to find out what is going wrong in the first place. As discussed already, the chances are it's your posture while at work which is causing it.
Taking some simple steps can make a huge difference.
- If you work in an office try adjusting the height of you computer monitor and the distance it is way from you.
- Try a better chair more suited to working long hours. A chair with adequate lumbar support is a great start.
As previously discussed, upper back muscle pain can be caused by a lack of adequate nutrition and waste removal to and from the muscles. Stretching is a great way to improve this flow, ensuring that your muscles are not building up in lactic acid and are not starting to shorten.
The best stretches for upper back muscle pain include stretches to the trapezius, pectoral muscles, rhomboids, levator scapulae and the muscles at the back of the head and upper neck.
Ensuring that your muscles are strong enough to do their job is crucial for relieving any upper back muscle pain.
Strengthening your rhomboids can help to stop your shoulders from rounding and strengthening the muscles at the back of your neck can help to reduce tension type headaches and feelings of fatigue and lethargy.
Over time, poor posture at work can begin to shape and compress the spine, slowly worsening your condition. Certain exercises including things like the bridge, or simply lying on you back on the floor for a few minutes at the end of the day can help to reset the bent forward position that occurs after being sat in a car or office all day.
Louise demonstrates the use of rolled up yoga matt to help correct posture and relieve symptoms of pain through the spine.
Staying aware is the hardest of the five steps especially as your symptoms begin to improve. Try to ensure that your head is over the top of your neck and body, not out in front. Bring you shoulders backwards and your chest forwards might feel strange initially but over time these tiny chances can make a world of difference.
Before we start it is important that we ensure your upper back muscle pain is just muscle pain and nothing else - to do that we need to rule out any other more serious pathology.
When patients come to us we initially seek to categorise their pain into two catagories:
Mechanical and non-mechanical
Mechanical pain is pain arising from a mechanical dysfunction. This could be a torn muscle, an inflamed tendon, an arthritic joint and so on.
Non-mechanical pain arises due to non-mechanical causes including any pathology such as cancer, infection, fever and so on.