Upper back pain: Three causes and a solution

Do you ever feel tension in your upper back? Though often dull and constant, it may include moments of sharp, shooting pain. While the causes may vary, there is hope!

Computers can be a pain

Jeri works as a bookkeeper at a small accounting office, reviewing documents, making phone calls and approving payments. Mostly, though, she sits in front of a computer screen, typing and clicking for over 6 hours each day.

She gets up to stretch and make some tea. As she stands, she feels a searing pain run from the base of her neck to the middle of her back. “Ouch!” she exclaims, then looks around, a little embarrassed she expressed her pain out loud. She finishes her tea and sits back down to work, but the pain is still there, duller now – except when she reaches for a client’s file or picks up the phone. At those moments, that sharp stab returns.

In a study of computer office workers, researchers found nearly 55% of participants reported neck and shoulder problems. With computers all but ubiquitous, most people have experienced the sharp pain at the base of the neck which can grow to run up and down the spinal column and across the shoulders.

An “alarming” pain

Ed is exhausted, with barely enough energy to eat dinner after getting home from his construction job. He showers and heads to bed – he is asleep before he reaches his pillow.

The alarm goes off at 5:30, and Ed rolls over to shut it off. As he reaches, he feels a sharp pain where his neck meets his shoulders. He sits up, almost dizzy because of the “kink” in his neck running down his back and the headache it is causing. He stands to get dressed, knowing it will be a long day.

The relationship between pain and sleep works in both directions. Poor posture, according to WebMD’s area on Pain Management, can be a cause of musculoskeletal pain – and this includes sleeping positions which put stress on isolated muscle groups.

Clearly, pain can also disrupt sleep. Upper back and shoulder issues tend to build as the night progresses, with one group of muscles, then another, becoming irritated. You awaken with soreness and change positions to gain relief. Yet, in a short time, new muscle groups become stressed and the pain rouses you again. To add insult to injury, disrupted sleep adds to stress, increasing the knots in your back even more.

Stress is a heavy load on your back

Amanda hangs up the phone, filled with worry. Her daughter has just been laid off and can no longer afford her apartment. Amanda invites her to come stay at her home but knows some big challenges lay ahead, as the household will also need to accommodate two teenage grandsons. The social dynamics, the different schedules, the financial issues – it’s all quite stressful to consider.

As Amanda begins preparing two rooms and creating a mental list of items she will need, a tightness builds in her upper back. By that evening, when she finally sits down, the stiffness has become almost unbearable. She isn’t sure what caused this pain, but she knows she will need relief if she is going to be able to help her daughter’s family.

The erector spinae comprise important muscle groups on either side of the spinal column which can often become stiff and knotted, causing upper back and neck pain.

At PainScience.com, Paul Ingraham suggests these muscles “often feel ropy and hard.”

“Along with the shoulders, lower back, and hips, it’s another common spot for stress and anxiety to express itself,” he adds.

We all experience stress in different ways. If you have noticed regular pain in your upper back, shoulders, and neck, but have been unable to identify any activity or injury which might have caused these muscle issues, stress could well be the culprit.

Relief from upper back pain can be found

Nathan has been looking forward to the golf outing with his pals for months, but he calls his friend Tom to cancel. Nathan says his back is “just too tight, and causing too much pain.”

Tom is sorry to hear Nathan won’t be joining them but offers some advice.

Call my massage therapist and set an appointment, Nate,” Tom suggests. “I had the same problem, but now I get relief from it.”

According to a study by the American Massage Therapy Association, 89% of respondents said they believe massage therapy can be an effective form of pain relief, and 28% have used massage therapy for that specific purpose. In a Consumer Reports survey, 84% of respondents found massage therapy helpful in treating back pain.

How does massage therapy relieve upper back and shoulder pain?

As noted earlier, knots and tightness in the erector spinae are often sources of pain in the upper back. Muscle bands are tense and pulling against each other. By applying pressure to the tight spots, your therapist encourages those muscle bands to release. You will feel the pressure, and then also the release. As the groups are worked through, the erector spinae regain their natural state. This may take some time and may need to be repeated across therapy sessions, depending on severity, but some relief is usually felt within a day or two.

Massage also improves circulation within these important muscle groups. As muscles work, they demand oxygen and nourishment and create waste products. Tight muscles can become inflamed, restricting the circulation they need to function properly. They complain by triggering pain.

The physical pressure and fluid motion of massage assists in circulatory flow. As the muscles release, tension is reduced and blood flow improves. Excess fluids and waste products are carried away, and fresh oxygen returns. A positive feedback loop begins and your pain fades.

Along with the benefits of your massage, your therapist may suggest some helpful practices and stretches to reduce future tension and pain in your upper back.

Upper back pain can make daily activities challenging. Why not plan to have your pain relieved today? Call us to set up your appointment.