I see many examples of people suffering from upper back pain in my osteopathic clinic. It is a surprisingly common problem with a whole host of causes.
Fortunately, it is quite rare for this area to have pain that has a serious cause, however, the pain involved can most certainly be serious even if the injury is not.
The medical name for this area of our back is the thorax. This is where the ribs attach to the spine, adding further complications to attempts at diagnosing what is causing the pain.
Each rib has two joints that attach it to the spine and either of these costo (meaning rib) – vertebral (the spine) joints can be injured. They also have a joint at the front, either directly onto your sternum or the cartilage that attaches to the sternum. Each of these joints is a vulnerable point subject to potential damaging strains.
In between the ribs are the intercostal muscles which are important in breathing and rotation movements and they can also be injured or become habitually contracted by breathing problems or traumas.
As we move up the thoracic spine from our lower back there is an arch when we look from the side and this leads to the upper back having a slight forward curve known as kyphosis.
This forward curve is very effective at helping dissipate forces moving up and down the body as we are active. Unfortunately, we have created a world where we tend to sit too much and this forward curve starts to become compressed. When this happens it starts to stiffen up which can be a major cause of pain and discomfort.
Some people are plagued with upper back pain morning, noon and night. Others may only get it at night and whilst there can be more sinister causes for this type of pain such as cancer, in general, this kind of night pain may be caused by an inflamed joint or arthritic changes.
Many of the pain receptors that are causing discomfort in arthritis are ‘low grade’ pain receptors. This means that whilst we are busy or distracted during the day we may not notice the pain. Then, when we go to bed at night the unpleasant, nagging, dull pain begins to show itself and can contribute to sleepless nights.
What Are Some Of The Most Common Causes Of Upper Back Pain?
The most common causes of upper back pain are muscle injuries around the spine and shoulder blades where the muscles work extremely hard to allow freedom of movement but with an important stabilising function too.
Then there are the unpleasant rib injuries that can be caused by seemingly innocuous events. I’ve seen people in agony from rushing to do a gym workout, not warming up or down, going crazy for 20 minutes then coming straight to my clinic because of the agony they have caused themselves with a rib problem.
One must not forget the traumatic rib cracks and fractures which will heal but can make life very uncomfortable for a few weeks. Just about the only thing you can do for these problems is to apply comfrey oil to the damaged area.
Comfrey oil’s folk name is knit bone for the active ingredients in it that do actually help bone and deep tissue injuries heal. I would also suggest taking CBD simply because it can be so good for your body when you have such uncomfortable and draining pain.
Poor posture can also contribute to problems in our upper back. This is often from our work where we sit at laptops or screens for prolonged periods. Sadly this is also now the same situation during many people’s leisure time.
The forward posture as we sit puts enormous strain on our lower back, causes our mid and upper back to lock up and causes hyperextension in our neck. This is not a natural position for our body and whilst it is designed to be able to take up this position, it is not designed to do so for long periods of time.
Such postural imbalances from prolonged screen use and sitting contribute to a type of problem often referred to as ‘myofascial pain’. This means the muscles and connective tissues that join everything together are causing the pain.
Generally, this is caused by muscles that have become used to being either too short and tight or too long and weak which sets in place a whole series of imbalances and strains leading to unpleasant ischaemic (lack of blood flow) pain.
Ischaemic myofascial pain is often better for movement and gets worse when there is a lack of movement.
It is quite rare, though not unheard of, for this area to get herniated disc problems. This is where the flexible disc between the vertebrae can bulge, potentially compressing nerves which can cause unpleasant pain.
People live in fear of getting a disc problem because of horror stories they may have heard from other people but it is worth remembering that even disc problems can heal and you can make a full recovery.
How To Relieve Upper Back Pain
Exercise that can begin to iron out postural imbalances is always worth doing and pilates and yoga both have a role to play in this. Whilst this type of exercise is not necessarily a quick fix it can have a powerful role in preventing future problems whilst helping you recover from the current injury.
Consulting an osteopath is also worth trying. Your osteopath should be able to identify the causes of the problem and help remove it and provide you with a recovery plan.
Rotation exercises can be useful to unlock restricted areas in your upper back and can be built into your working day.
If you have a job that demands you sit for prolonged periods it is worth noting that you cannot exercise away the strain of sitting all day long BUT there is a simple solution. Make sure that you stand up every twenty minutes throughout the day. You do not have to do anything other than get up from sitting.
A simple way to build this into your working day is to set an alarm for twenty minutes on your phone and put it out of reach. When the alarm goes off you stand up, go over to your phone, reset the alarm, sit back down and carry on.
This little routine can hugely reduce the strain of sitting and is effortless and easy to do.
I would always advocate taking CBD as part of your daily routine and of course if you get an injury the power of cannabinoids really come into their own. Our endocannabinoid system, which is vital in balancing all our health systems, seems to respond safely and well to high quality CBD products.
How To Prevent Upper Back Pain In The Future
The first way to prevent upper back pain problems in the future is to become aware of what has caused your problem in the first place.
Whilst there are times when we genuinely have no idea why we have pain, more often than not, with a little common sense investigation work (osteopaths are good at this) you can establish the cause and then prevent future upper back pain.
Regular exercise is important. Our body is a fluid moving machine so giving it regular exercise helps it to maintain good health.
Diet can exacerbate pain. I have seen people’s pain ease when the nightshade family of foods is removed from their diet – the common ones are tomatoes and potatoes. Then there are others who see their pain melt away when they take up a ketogenic diet.
This can be a matter of trial and error though there are experts out there who can help you.
One of the most amazing ones I have seen and used with my patients is metabolic typing. This is a way of establishing your body’s specific metabolic ‘quirks’ and tailoring your foods to your needs. It can be astounding how people respond to this, seeing energy levels increase, pain fade away and long term health problems begin to resolve.
The Bottom Line
For most people, most of the time upper back pain will settle down and go away. The key is to not suffer with it for too long but to seek help.
Taking pain killers may mask the problem in the short term but in the long run, this leads to more chronic problems.
This area is prone to problems often of our own making and the key to resolution and prevention is to recognise the cause or causes and remove it.