Causes of Neck and Upper Back Pain

People do not realize how much they move their neck, until they are unable to do so. The neck has the least amount of muscular stabilization to support and move your head, which makes the neck very susceptible to injury, and can cause back pain. It doesn’t take much force to disrupt that fine balance.

The spinal cord passes through a space in the vertebrae sending nerve impulses to every part of the body. Between each pair of cervical vertebrae, the spinal cord sends bundles of nerves that pass down the arms and to the upper back, and if your arm is hurting, it may be a problem in the neck! Symptoms in the arms can include numbness, tingling, cold, aching, and “pins and needles”

The neck can also contribute to headaches, muscle spasms in the shoulders and upper back, ringing ears, otitis media inflammation in the middle ear, temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ or jaw joint). Dysfunction of the neck also causes restricted range of motion and chronic tightness in the upper back.

Neck and upper back pain is caused by a combination of factors, including injury, poor posture, stress, and disc problems.

Back Injuries

The most common injury to the neck is a whiplash injury. Whiplash is caused by a sudden movement of the head.

Much more common causes of neck pain and headaches are poor posture. It’s easy to get into bad posture habits, can eventually lead to pain and headaches. The rule is simple: keep your neck in a “neutral” position whenever possible. Don’t bend or hunch your neck forward for extended periods. Also, do not to sit in one position for extended period of time. If you must sit for an extended period, make sure your posture is good: Keep your head in a neutral position, make sure your back is always supported, and keep your knees slightly lower than your hips.

Stress Induced Back Injury

When people become stressed, they unconsciously contract their muscles. This usually happens to the muscles in their back. This ‘muscle guarding’ or defense posture is a response designed to guard against injury. Muscle guarding occurs whenever we become emotionally stressed. The areas most affected are the muscles of the neck, upper back and low back.

Disc Herniation

Discs in your neck may be prolapsed herniated or bulging and this may put pressure on the nerves that lead from the spine into your shoulders, arms and hands. Although cervical discs do not bulge nearly as often as lumbar discs do, they occasionally can still get damaged, especially when damage sustained from a whiplash injury.

Mid-Back Pain, Chest and Ribs

Put your hands alongside your chest and sides and you can easily feel your bony ribs. In the front they attach to your breastbone or sternum and in the back they attach to your spinal bones or vertebrae. Ancient anatomists thought your ribs looked like the bars of a cage so they called them, with their attachments, your “rib cage.”

What is in that cage? Some very important organs are protected there: your heart, lungs, major blood vessels, diaphragm and other structures. It’s important to keep this “cage” in alignment and balanced. A misaligned rib cage can put unnatural pressure on its vital inhabitants affecting their proper functioning.

Thoracic Subluxations

Thoracic subluxations can affect the heart, lungs and other organs in your chest cavity, preventing the proper draining of lymphatic fluids from your head, brain, throat, chest, abdomen and legs. Subluxations can also restrict your breathing, and can also affect your sympathetic nerves which influence the function of your internal organs, senses and brain itself. Two types of thoracic subluxations have a special name: Thoracic Outlet Syndrome and T4 Syndrome.

Thoracic Outlet Syndrome (TGS) affects your brachial plexus, a collection of nerves that go from your spine to your arms, hands and shoulders. TGS is characterized by pain in the head, neck or upper extremities, paresthesia (strange nerve pains) and other symptoms.

Symptoms of T4 Syndrome, caused by a vertebral subluxation of the 4th thoracic vertebra, may include heaviness and swelling in one or both upper extremities; “creepy crawly” feelings of the shoulders, arms or hands; feelings of a tight band around the upper arm and feelings of heat or cold in one or both hands. Because the sympathetic system can be involved, patients with these syndromes may feel heart-like pain in the chest and left upper extremity and think they are having a heart attack. These conditions can also be confused with Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.

Thoracic Vertebrae

Common vertebral problems in the thoracic spine include vertebral subluxations, a condition where the vertebrae of the thoracic spine become statically misaligned and/or function abnormally resulting in pain, muscle spasm, and sometime nerve malfunction.

Rib Articulation

The thoracic spine is unique in that each of its vertebrae attaches to a pair of ribs. There are 12 thoracic vertebrae and thus, 24 ribs (12 ribs on the left and 12 ribs on the right). Just like adjacent connecting vertebrae can misalign and biomechanically malfunction, so too can the thoracic vertebrae and their adjacent ribs. When ribs “go out” or misalign in relation to their connecting vertebrae, the individual will often experience sharp pains in the area of the misaligned rib head, especially on twisting movements of the torso.

Thoracic Intervertebral Discs

The intervertebral discs in the thoracic spine are located between adjacent vertebrae. They function as spacers to provide clearance for exiting spinal nerves, as connectors to link adjacent vertebrae together and allow for movement, and also as spinal shock absorbers.

The discs of the thoracic spine are less likely to become injured compared to those of the cervical and lumbar spines, making up only 2% of intervertebral disc herniations. This is because of the rib articulations made by the vertebra which significantly increases the stability of the thoracic spine. This does not mean that the discs of the thoracic are immune from damage, rather, statistically less likely to become injured.

Thoracic Facet Joints

The facet joints in the thoracic spine allow for considerable amounts of flexion and extension. The facet joints can become injured with excessive amounts of rotation and extension. Golfers are prime candidates for facet joint injury due to their repetitive twisting motions as they swing their golf clubs. When injured, pain is often sharp and localized to the area of the affected facet joint.

Thoracic Spinal Nerves

The thoracic spinal nerve roots exit openings formed between adjacent thoracic vertebrae termed the intervertebral foramina or IVF. The spinal nerves from the thoracic spine innervate the many muscles of the back as well as the many visceral organs and tissues of the chest and abdominal regions.

Spinal nerve root irritation or compression in the thoracic region commonly leads to intercostal pain (between the ribs). Sharp shooting pains are often experienced along the path of the ribs. Additionally, an increased susceptibility to herpes zoster or “shingles” in some individuals (generally the elderly or immune compromised) is thought to occur when the thoracic spinal nerves are irritated or compressed. Herpes zoster involves infection to an area of the nerve root, the dorsal root ganglion, with the herpes virus.

Thoracic Spinal Musculature

The paraspinal muscles of the thoracic spine are numerous. They are responsible for the majority of movements of the trunk as well as a number of upper extremity movements and are a common source of injury and pain. Over exertion of the muscles from lifting and pulling and poor posture are the major contributors in mid back strains. Pain originating from these muscles characteristically produces a dull generalized ache.

Muscle Spasms and Trigger Points

The Body is made up of over 60% nerve, muscle and bone, it should come as no surprise that chronic pain, strain, spasm, irritation, inflammation, trigger points or other neuro-musculoskeletal (nerve-muscle-bone) conditions are so common. In fact, many of the millions of people who visit their doctors do so because of these problems.

Do Injections and Physical Therapy Work?

For standard medicine, how to best deal with the symptoms of muscle spasm, trigger points and similar problems is a mystery. Medical treatments such as novocaine, procaine and xylocaine injections; cooling sprays; muscle relaxant drugs; cortisone injections; and other drugs have been tried with mixed results. Hot & cold treatments, Sports and Deep Tissue Massage and other modalities have had much better success.

The Cause

The cause of this mystery illness, may, at least in part, be spinal trauma. In one study, adults with neck injuries had a 16 % increase of neuromuscular pain and fibromyalgia within one year of their injury. Others have found similar associations.

Massage For Pain

Those suffering from muscle spasm, trigger points, neuromuscular pain and problems, fibromyalgia and similar symptoms are seeing Massage Therapists in record numbers because they are getting results. Similar results were found with those suffering from fibromyalgia with tender trigger points, numbness, tingling and pain.

How do you feel in the morning?

Do your muscles feel “tight,” especially in the morning? Do you always need to stretch with constant aches and pains in your neck, low back and hips? Do you feel old and stiff with morning fatigue, sleeping problems and many tender spots (trigger points)?

Trigger Points

Trigger points are tender, sensitive areas that when pressed, stuck, heated or cooled can be exquisitely painful. You may first discover trigger points when you are surprised by someone pressing a seemingly pain-free area. Trigger point pain may also be referred to other areas of the body. Trigger points are common in chronic muscle spasm, myalgia, myositis, fibrositis, strain and sprain, and other muscle and joint problems.

Vertebral Subluxations

A spinal condition that damages nerves, muscles, fascia, meninges and other tissues. Subluxations can alter the concentration of enzymes and other chemicals necessary for skeletal muscle health which may play a role in muscle diseases. Compression of a nerve interferes with impulse transmission, causing muscle paralysis, vasodilation and trophic ulcers.

Vertebral subluxations cause joints to “freeze” or lose normal movement, causing damage to the involved area. Movement is essential for the prevention of contracture and adhesion formation within the joint.

Massage Therapy

Massage Therapy removes severe stress from the spine as well as related nerve and other tissues including the muscles, bones, joints, ligaments and other soft tissues. This permits your body to work better, under the direction of your inner healer (your innate healing ability) thus permitting you to better heal yourself. After your massage, your head is more balanced in relationship with gravity, your hips and shoulders are more level and stress is taken off the joints and muscles throughout your body. Because less of your energy goes into supporting an unbalanced spine and skeleton, you may immediately discover more energy, greater ease in movement and improved relaxation.

Lower Back Pain

Eighty percent of people suffer from back pain at some point in their lives. Back pain is the second most common reason for visits to the doctors. In fact, it is estimated that low back pain affects more than half of the adult population each year and more than 15% of all people experience frequent bouts of low back pain.

The susceptibility of the low back to injury and pain is due to the fact that the low back, like the neck, is an unstable part of the spine, unlike the thoracic spine, which is supported by the rib cage. This instability allows us to have a great deal of mobility to touch our toes, tie our shoes or pick something up from ground level, but at the cost of increased risk of injury.

The low back can withstand tremendous forces as long as it is healthy and functioning correctly. However, if the low back is out of alignment or has weakened supporting muscles, something as simple as putting a bag or suit case in and out of the boot of a car, picking something up off the floor, or simply bending down can cause a low back injury.

Studies have shown that when back pain is not treated, it may go away temporarily, and is very too likely return. The importance to take low back pain seriously cannot be stressed enough. The professional Massage Therapy care is one of the best ways to care for your back.

The Causes of Low Back Pain

Sprained ligaments, strained muscles, ruptured discs, trigger points and inflamed joints are the many of different conditions that can result in low back pain. While sports injuries or accidents can lead to an injury and pain, sometimes even the simplest movements, like picking up a pencil from the floor, can have painful results. In addition, conditions such as poor posture, stress, arthritis, kidney stones and kidney infections, can be the cause of low back pain.

There may be many other things that can cause low back pain, and some of those things can be serious if left untreated. Massage Therapists are the experts in diagnosing the cause and determining a proper course of treatment for low back pain. Below are some of the most common causes.


When a disruption in the normal movement or position of the vertebrae occurs it results in pain and inflammation. In the lumbar spine these occur at the transition between the lower spine and the sacrum. Subluxations can lead to debilitating low back pain, however, subluxations are easily treatable and there is often a significant reduction in pain experienced almost immediately after treatment.

Disc Herniations

A herniated disc does not automatically mean that you may suffer from low back pain. In one study almost 60% of all adults had at least one bulging or herniated disc, even though they did not experienced any back pain. However, herniated discs can be a source of severe and debilitating pain, which may radiate to other areas of the body. Unfortunately, when a disc herniates, they rarely, completely heal.

Sprains, Strains and Spasms

Sprains strains and spasms, are the most common source of low back pain. Overworking the muscles or ligaments of the low back may lead to tears in the tissues, which become painful, swollen and may even ache, with a tightening to the area affected.


When you become stressed, your body responds by increasing the levels of stress hormones leading to the rise of blood pressure and heart rate and tightening up of your muscles. By becoming stressed all the time your muscles will become weak and painful loaded with trigger points.

Massage treatment for the low back has been repeatedly shown to be the most effective treatment for low back pain. Major studies have shown that massage treatment is more effective, and has better long-term outcomes than any other treatment. Why? This makes sense is because massage is the only method of treatment that works to re-establish normal vertebral motion and position in the spinal without any risk of any adverse effects. All other treatments, such as muscle relaxants and pain killers, will only decrease the symptoms of the problem and do not correct the problem itself.

Massage Therapy treatment for low back pain is normally straight forward, and simply a matter of massaging the lower lumbar vertebrae and pelvis to re-establish normal motion and position of your bones and joints.


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