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Upper Back Pain

1 Learn

Why does my upper back hurt?

Muscle tissue consists of contractile fibers, which allow the muscle to move. There are three types of muscles:

  1. Cardiac (heart)
  2. Smooth (digestive system)
  3. Skeletal (the large muscles attached to the skeleton)

Cardiac and smooth muscles are known as involuntary, meaning we have no conscious control over them.  Skeletal muscles are known as voluntary muscles, because we do have conscious control over them.

There are over 600 skeletal muscles in the human body, the main function of which is to move the skeleton.  This is achieved through tendons, which connect the muscle to bone and ligaments which connect bone to bone. Unity between muscle and bone creates a levers and pulleys system allowing movement to take place.  A great example is the bicep in your upper arm. As the bicep contracts it shortens and pulls the lower arm towards it. This type of contraction is called isotonic, meaning movement is taking place. When a muscle contracts and there is no movement, such as pushing your hands together, then this is called isometric.  Even when stationary the body is under a state of static contraction known as muscle tone.

Knowing this makes it is easier to understand how muscle tension is created, why it is so painful and that there is no quick fix. The body is designed so that muscle tone holds us upright throughout our daily lives. Only when we perform a specific action, such as lifting a weight, should there be a contraction beyond the minimum level of muscle tone. However, the average person is needlessly over contracting certain muscles due to bad posture or poor use of body mechanics (ergonomics).

For example, imagine a person working at a computer who slightly leans forward to see the screen. As an infrequent occurrence, the muscles used for leaning forward can contract to support the head and upper back. Then when that person returns to the upright position, the muscles can relax again. Now say the person doesn’t return the head back and instead stays slightly leaning forward throughout the whole work day. The muscles of the neck and upper back were not designed for such a job and soon fatigue, this also puts a demand on other muscles to help, such as the lower back.  All of which will eventually tense up in order to keep that position held, even though the muscles are tired. Eventually, if this tension is not overcome through posture correction (not leaning forward) then over time it can lead to pain.

Upper back pain may not only be due to muscle tension alone. The back is a complex structure of nerves, bones, joints, ligaments and tendons. creating or having a problem with one or all of  these can lead to back pain; the trick is to bring relief to the whole structure. Relief can be brought by relaxing the muscles within and surrounding the upper back through hot and cold application, stretching, movement, strengthening and massage. This in turn can help loosen the tendons, bones and joints and relieve any pressure a bone is placing on a nerve which is creating pain.

More often than not, if somebody has tension in the upper back, then they will also have an unstable and weak lower body. The brain senses this instability and tells the muscles of the upper body to tense up in reaction to the lack of support. This leads to a chronically tense and painful upper back. Eventually you will need to strengthen your whole lower body from the feet up, but the initial part of this program focuses on strengthening the glutes and core abdominal muscles.

The second part of helping your back is to address the cause of the tension and pain. Long term relief and improvement comes only through building a relationship with the back and learning what actions are contributing to the pain i.e sitting at a computer desk for 8-10 hours a day. By changing your habits and ergonomics you can lessen the likelihood of your pain recurring.

Next step

2 Create

Vision Exercises

  • Shifting

    Vision problems and tired eyes can lead directly to poor posture. Leaning the head forward to see more clearly rounds the upper back and over time leads to chronic stiffness and pain.  This posture problem is called the “myopic posture” because it is common in nearsighted people.

    The shifting exercise can activate the macula (that part of the eye responsible for fine detail) by encouraging you to look at smaller and smaller detail. This sharpens your vision and makes it unnecessary for you to lean forward as your eyes are now capable of seeing smaller detail.

Body Exercises

  • Hot or Cold Application

    Applying heat, such as a hot towel, to the upper back and surrounding muscle can help to relax and lessen the tension. A hot bath is a great way to relax a large group of muscles at the same time.

    Cold can also by applied to the upper back to help reduce inflammation and swelling. The cold will help relieve pain and make it easier to move. Ways of applying cold can be a cold towel, ice pack or even better, and our favorite, a cold bath. You can even combine the two by having a hot bath to relieve muscle tension and icing the upper back at the same time by bringing an ice pack into the bath.

  • Core Abdominal Exercises

    As previously mentioned, weakness in the glutes and core abdominal muscles can contribute to the upper back becoming tense. By strengthening the glutes and core abdominals we create a better sense of stability allowing the upper body to relax. Also, by strengthening the core we create a natural back brace out of our abdominals.

  • Crossed Leg Rotations

    Movements such as crossed leg, shoulder and head rotations brings movement and life back to the joints and dynamically loosens the surrounding muscles.

  • Head Rotations

  • Shoulder Rotations

    Movements such as crossed leg, shoulder and head rotations brings movement and life back to the joints and dynamically loosens the surrounding muscles.

  • Tennis Balls for the Back

    Using tennis balls on the back can help bring relaxation to it by creating a counter pressure to the muscle tension.

  • Back Stretch 

  • Chest Stretch 

  • Neck Stretch 

  • Shoulder Stretch

    By stretching the back you help release some of the tension being held there and bring more space to the joints. This can also be said for stretching the surrounding muscles (chest, shoulders and neck stretches). In doing so you are reducing the tension of the upper back, by releasing strain around it.

Mind Exercises

  • Body Awareness

    In today’s society the vast majority of people have lost connection with their bodies. A great example of this is taking pain killers to numb the pain and separate “us” from ‘’it.” Pain becomes an inconvenience and we find it difficult to function while it is there. It makes sense for us to want to stop the pain as quickly as possible so we can get on with our work and daily lives.

    The problem with separating the body and mind is that over time the gap gets increased so we no longer understand what our body is trying to tell us. For example, someone is sitting for a long period of time. After 30 minutes or an hour the back starts to ache which is a clear signal to move or stretch. Instead that person continues to sit for another hour or so until they are forced to stand up through either too much pain or another task.

    For self healing to be successful we need to rebuild our mind/body connection to understand what activities can cause pain and what we can do, i.e. exercises, to work with it instead of against it. A benefit of this renewed connection is that instead of a quick fix for pain we can make the effects longer lasting.

  • Body Journal

    By keeping a journal about working with your body you can help strengthen your body awareness. It can help show you what activities in your life are causing pain such as the way you get out of bed and/or sitting for long periods of time. Through journaling you can start to focus on what you need to improve the condition and keep the pain from occurring and reoccurring. Everyone is an individual so certain exercises may not work for you. Your body will also change over the course of your program. The journal is a good way of keeping track of what is working for you and what is not.

    A body journal can give you a place to deal with pain and frustrations that are being experienced. Journaling also keeps track of your successes. Even the smallest improvement is still an improvement and should be appreciated! Over time its easy to forget how far you have come.  and keep a journal can be a nice reminder of your progress.

  • Relaxation

    The body directly responds to the mind. If you are anxious your body creates tension leading to strain. On the other hand you can consciously use the mind to relax the body through activities like meditation, visualization and general relaxation techniques.

Next step

3 Integrate

Home

  • Shifting – shifting on facial details in the mirror whilst brushing teeth, shifting from detail to detail on a close object ie photo, picture etc.
  • Application of Hot and Cold – while watching TV, having a bath, before bed or early morning, while resting around the house.
  • Tennis Balls – Watching TV, before bed or first thing in morning, anytime the you sense tension in the back.
  • Crossed Leg, Shoulder and Neck Rotations – While watching TV, pick a time when to perform i.e first thing in the morning, before bed or lunch.
  • Stretching – Listening to music, talking on the phone, in between chores, combine with afternoon or morning exercise program. anytime the muscles feel tight.
  • Strengthening – Part of morning or afternoon exercise program, contract the specific muscle periodically throughout the day, combine with chores, while watching TV
  • Body Awareness –  Standing and sitting posture, what movement or activity causes certain pains i.e getting in and out of bed, bring your attention to specific body parts when performing routine tasks, i.e brushing teeth chopping vegetables.
  • Body Journal – keep near by and add an observation when it arises, before bed i.e write out the observations of the day.
  • Relaxation – Palming, meditation, napping, distance looking, listen to music or audio book, self massage, having a bath, going for a walk.

Work

  • Shifting – shifting from facial details on work colleagues, shifting from detail to detail on a close object ie photo, picture etc.
  • Application of Hot and Cold –  During breaks, while performing simple tasks, before after work, whenever there is pain.
  • Tennis Balls – Put between your back and chair, between your glutes and chair or between your hamstrings and chair and press into them.
  • Crossed Leg, Shoulder and Neck rotations –  While sitting in a chair, during a break.
  • Stretching – During breaks, while talking on the phone, before and after work.
  • Strengthening –  During breaks, while talking on the phone, before and after work, talking the stairs instead of the lift.
  • Body Awareness – Standing and sitting posture, bring your attention to specific body parts when performing routine tasks, i.e answering phones.
  • Body Journal – Keep journal near by and make observations.
  • Relaxation – Make sure you take your breaks! Palming, meditation, distance looking, listen to music or audio book, self massage, going for a walk.

Transit

  • Shifting – shifting from facial details on other passengers and bus signs, shifting from detail to detail on a close or distant object.
  • Application of Hot and Cold – As a passenger, before and after long journeys, take breaks on long journeys a apply.
  • Tennis Balls – Put between your back and seat, between your glutes and seat or between your hamstrings and seat and press into them.
  • Crossed Leg, Shoulder and Neck Rotations – as a passenger, perform mini rotations focusing on lower lumber. if walking longer distances stop regularly and rotate lower back  (hula).
  • Stretching –  as a passenger, stop and stretch periodically when walking, stretch before and after journeys.
  • Strengthening – as a passenger, contracting the specific muscle while walking, waiting for a bus.
  • Body Awareness – Standing, walking and sitting posture, how certain movements create certain sensations, looseness.
  • Body Journal – Observe how the body responds during forms of transit, ie, sitting in certain position, length of time, walking up or down hill etc
  • Relaxation – Palming, meditation, distance looking, listen to music or audio book, self massage.

Computer

  • Shifting – shifting from detail to detail on the screen, shifting from detail to detail on a close object ie photo, picture etc. download and shift with Large and Small Print.
  • Application of Hot and Cold – Wrap a microwaved heat pad around your neck or put it behind your back.
  • Tennis Balls –  Put between chair and back, between your glutes and seat or between your hamstrings and seat and press into them, on computer breaks. anytime tension is felt in the back or legs, before and after using computer.
  • Crossed Leg, Shoulder and Neck Rotations – sitting at computer, during a short break.
  • Stretching – chair stretches, during breaks,
  • Strengthening – during breaks, periodically contract specific muscle.
  • Body Awareness – Sitting posture ie are you arching the lower back in or out? Are you holding your shoulders up when typing, are you leaning towards the computer? is your back tired or in pain?
  • Body Journal – Keep the journal close by and make observations.
  • Relaxation – Palming, meditation, distance looking, listen to music or audio book, self massage.