Constant achiness in the upper back. Pain when turning your head. Pain when turning at all. If you’re experiencing the uncomfortable daily reminder from upper back pain, you’re not alone. For those who experience chronic upper back discomfort, it tends to be one of the first things to greet you in the morning when you wake up, then lingers throughout the day, and thus permeates most aspects of life. While it may not necessarily cause excruciating pain, it has a way of sticking around. However, it needn’t set up permanent camp in your life.
One of the most important parts of banishing an injury for good is getting to the root of the problem, and because most upper back pain comes on slowly over time, it can be more difficult to identify these key components. Why did it crop up in the first place? Why does it continue to stay? Once you can understand how you got to your current state, you can begin to construct a healing process.
Let’s explore the most common causes of upper back pain and how you can set yourself on the path to recovery.
Common Culprits Of Upper Back Pain
Poor posture, a herniated disc— even excessive sitting, (believe it or not) can lead to chronic upper back pain. And at the root of the problem? Muscle deconditioning from little or incorrect engagement. Let’s look at each back pain culprit a little deeper.
Plain and simple, we’re in a culture that sits more than we stand or move around. With the rise of long commutes, desk jobs, and work that requires long bouts in front of a computer, our mobility during our waking hours has decreased. Unfortunately, one of the main issues with prolonged sitting is its risk of deconditioning muscles, which contributes to chronic back pain. When we sit for long periods of time, our back muscles do not actively engage as much, thus allowing them to decondition if prolonged sitting is habitual. When the muscles in our upper back decondition, it begins to put more strain on everything else, including our spine, neck, and ligaments. Just as athletes condition their bodies to take on more and grow stronger over time, the inverse can occur when these muscles are neglected. Obviously, this isn’t what you want.
A word of caution: though it can be tempting to spend long periods lying down because of back pain, this could actually just make matters worse. In this scenario, movement is the cure!
Building in walking breaks is a great way to not only break up the monotony of the day but also to stretch and move your body in different ways than sitting in front of a desk or behind the steering wheel of a car. Your breaks needn’t be lengthy, even 5-10 minutes to stretch your legs will do the trick, and stretches your back and neck, too.
In addition, if you do find yourself sitting for the majority of an average day, try some simple upper back and lower neck stretches at your desk. This can vary from occasionally stretching your neck in all planes of motion (side-to-side and forward-to-back) to a simple cross-body shoulder stretch. These basic movements are less about establishing a new workout routine, and more about creating healthy habits that break up the long bouts of sedentary behavior.
Often, poor ergonomics (or posture) is linked to prolonged sitting. Worse, many of us continue that poor posture even after we’ve gotten up from the desk by slouching, perpetuating muscle deconditioning. Don’t let something as simple as poor posture cause you constant pain.
To begin to set yourself on the straight and narrow in regards to your posture, try setting periodic alerts to check your body stance. When the alert goes off, take a full-body audit. Are your shoulders back and down? Is your line of focus at eye level? Is your core lightly engaged, as you flatten your back? Take a moment to reposition yourself to reset and embody good posture before carrying on with your day. Though it may seem small, these reminders will help you create good posture as a habit over time – which in turn, could help alleviate your upper back pain. Again, the key here is consistency and creating a good habit in place of a poor one.
An overuse injury calls it like it is – the root of the problem stems from overuse, plain and simple. When one area is used more than it should be, the muscles begin to wear down, potentially causing strains or irritation. An overuse injury to the upper back involves some repetitive motion to the area – whether it happens while playing a sport like baseball, or simply lifting something heavy overhead, overusing one specific area will eventually cause muscle breakdown.
An overuse injury usually needs some rest to start your healing. Begin with a couple of weeks in which you deliberately avoid the activities that seem to aggravate the injury, then gradually add movement to the area. As you add back movement, avoid moves that aggravate the injury. And, work in small, rehabilitative movements, using pain as a guide. The side-to-side neck movements and cross-body shoulder stretch referenced above are both great options for minimally aggressive movement patterns that could help your healing without making the problem worse.
Herniated Disc Or Pinched Nerve
Between each of our vertebrates, we have discs that act as cushions for comfort and protection. When one of these discs becomes compromised or herniated, the soft, jelly-like center pokes through, placing more pressure on our spine. When this happens in the mid to upper back, even a relatively small herniation can feel painful, and even cause some tingling in our arms as well.
Most times, a herniated disc is an injury that happens over time. Though it’s sometimes linked to a more traumatic event (like suddenly lifting and twisting something heavy), more often a herniation happens as a result of aging. With rest and appropriate physical therapy exercises, most people with herniated discs can recover relatively easily.
Pinched nerves tend to piggyback on herniated discs. If a herniated disc shifts far enough, it can compress on a nerve, causing tingling and numbness in your arms and pain in your upper back. The treatment for a pinched nerve usually mirrors that of a herniated disc. Regardless, both of these conditions should be treated with the diagnosis and supervision of a medical professional.
How Chiropractic Can Help Treat Upper Back Pain
Another excellent way to reduce upper back pain is by working consistent chiropractic care into your routine. The adjustments of the spine and extremities provided during chiropractic appointments help to realign common misalignments that happen as a result of everyday life, yet wreak havoc when left untreated. These adjustments can help immensely when managing the strain on your back from simply sitting for long periods, as they work to decrease pressure and inflammation in the body.
Additionally, whether you’re managing a simple overuse injury or concerned that you may have a herniated disc, your practitioner can help guide you through proper treatment, and when necessary, offer at-home routines to assist with your healing process. Perhaps most importantly however, is your practitioner’s ability to properly diagnose your pain and help you address the root of the problem.
Stop suffering from back pain unnecessarily; prioritize your health now.