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Fixing Upper Back and Neck Pain

Overview

Upper back and neck pain can stop you in your tracks, making it difficult to go about your typical day. The reasons behind this discomfort vary, but they all come down to how we hold ourselves while standing, moving, and — most important of all — sitting.

Neck and upper back pain can limit your movements and capabilities. If you don’t do anything about your pains, they can get worse, spread, and limit you further. This is usually because the muscles around your immediate area of pain have tensed up to protect that one spot. That expansion limits movement and can turn one clenched muscle under your shoulder blade into a painful shoulder and a tension headache.

Back Pain and Sleep

Back and muscle pain can also interfere with your sleep. According to the National Sleep Foundation, in your deepest stages of sleep, your muscles relax. This is also the time when your body releases human growth hormone. When you lose sleep due to back or neck pain, you lose this opportunity to heal.

Causes

Causes of upper back and neck pain include:

  • improperly lifting something heavy
  • practicing poor posture
  • sports injury
  • being overweight
  • smoking

Our love of screens is also a likely culprit in upper back and neck pain. Sitting all day working on a computer screen, craning your neck to read the news on your phone on the way home, and slumping on the couch to watch several hours of television are great ways to throw your body out of alignment.

Like many health conditions, the effects of neck and back pain can be more severe in people who smoke or are overweight. Excess weight can add more pressure on the muscles.

Quick Relief and Prevention

Chronic upper back and neck pain can become a very serious problem. However, some general soreness in your back and neck area is quite common. There are a few measures you can take for quick relief when this discomfort arises, and some things you can do to try to prevent it altogether.

Apply a Cold Compress

If you can, apply a cold compress. This could mean a handful of ice in a plastic bag wrapped in a towel, or anything cold, such as a soda can right out of the machine.

Try an Over-the-Counter Pain Reliever

If your stomach tolerates nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory meds such as naprosyn, take them according to package directions as soon as you can.

Walk Upright

Walking with healthy posture could help as well. A good way to visualize healthy posture is to imagine you are suspended by a line connecting the middle of your chest to the ceiling or sky.

Use a cold pack and anti-inflammatory pain relief for the first three days after the pain starts. After that, alternate applying heat and cold to your injury. Upper back and neck pain usually erupt suddenly, but healing can take a long time. If you are still in pain and your movement is limited after a month, it’s time to see your doctor.

Stretches

Once you’ve calmed the immediate pain and rested your injury for a day or so, you can begin trying to loosen it and help heal it through stretches. Any of these stretches will also help you prevent new pain, or prevent a reoccurrence of an old injury.

I-Pose

Upper Back and Neck Pain

Sitting in a firm chair or exercise ball with your feet flat on the ground, allow your hands to hang straight down from your relaxed shoulders. With your palms facing each other, slowly lift your hands toward your knees, then all the way over your head. Keep your elbows straight but not locked, and don’t lift your shoulders. Hold the I-pose for three deep breaths then slowly lower your arms back to your sides. Repeat 10 times.

W-Pose

Upper Back and Neck Pain

Stand against a wall with your feet shoulder-width apart. Begin with your arms dangling at your sides and your shoulders relaxed. Put your arms out like Frankenstein then pull your elbows back to the wall next to your ribcage. Next, try to bring the backs of your hands and your wrists to the wall to the sides of your shoulders. You’re making the shape of a W, with your torso as the center line. Hold it for 30 seconds. Do three rounds, at least once and up to three times a day.

Head Tilt

Upper Back and Neck Pain

This simple exercise is likely the hardest to perform early on in your injury. Don’t push yourself too much — it should become easier over time.

Sitting in a firm chair or exercise ball with your feet flat on the ground, allow your arms to hang straight down from your relaxed shoulders. Keeping your arm at your side, grasp the seat of your chair with your right hand, and tilt your left ear toward your left shoulder. Extend as far as you can comfortably, and hold for one deep breath. Repeat 10 times, then grasp with your left hand and stretch toward the right 10 times.

When to See a Doctor

If your neck or back is injured by a blow, like when you’re playing football, or in a car accident, see a doctor immediately. You could be facing a concussion or internal injuries. Experiencing any numbness is also a sign that you should check in with your healthcare provider. If you try treating your pain at home and it doesn’t resolve after two weeks, see your doctor. 

You asked, we answered

  • How can I best describe my upper back and neck pain to help my doctor accurately treat me?- Anonymous
  • It is important to let the doctor know the history of when the pain started to occur. Was there an injury associated with this or was it a gradual onset of pain? Do you have any pain, numbness, weakness, and/or tingling in your upper extremities? If so, define the location. Describe what makes the pain worse or what makes the pain better. Let you doctor know what steps you have taken to lessen the pain and whether or not they were successful. 

    - Dr. William Morrison, orthopedic surgeon

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