It happened again! It’s been years really and I almost forgot what it feels like but I was quickly reminded. That sharp pain between the shoulder blades followed by a constant nagging pain stretching from the origin all the way through to the tip of the fingers. Lasting for days! Has it ever happened to you? Upper back pain is the worst!
I seem to have a weak spot on one of my right rhomboid trigger points because the above scenario keeps happening again and again, always on the right side. It has taken me some time to figure out how to avoid it and how to fix it so I want to share with you all that I have learned about it through the years.
It started in college when I started working on the side as well. I’m guessing the constant sitting took its toll. But in the beginning, the discomfort wasn’t that grave and it only lasted a day or two each time so I didn’t really pay much attention to it. Until one day, after two days of slight pain, I had to iron two loads of laundry since my partner was leaving for a long business trip the next morning. Wasn’t a big deal until I woke up the next day. I tried to get out of bed to see him off and just couldn’t. So not only was the pain unimaginable but I was also left to handle it by myself.
Long story short, it didn’t go away in two days as usual. I went to work after 5 days and had to take breaks every hour to straighten my back. I actually lay down on the conference table to do that. I took pain and anti-inflammatory meds for a whole month and had physical therapy for two weeks before the pain went away completely.
These days my issue is carrying my 18-pound baby girl around. I mostly do this with my right arm which makes me slouch to the side. Not good.
So yeah, I learned quite a lot during this time both from my physical therapist and my personal trial and error so if this keeps happening to you too, read on!
Why it happens
First of all, let me stress that here we are not talking about pain that is the result of an injury. If you have somehow injured yourself either by doing sports, in a car accident or else, see your doctor immediately.
But sadly injuries are not the only source of upper back pain. More often than not it appears as a result of how we hold ourselves in our day to day. The way we walk for example, how we lift things but most of all the way we sit. We increasingly live sedentary lives and if that wasn’t enough we not only sit too much but also slouch. Either behind a computer or even worse on our phones.
Why worse you ask? Computer monitors are bigger and thus positioned further away from us but more importantly, they are higher. When we look at our phones we tend to tilt our neck much more.
How it happens
As a result, our spine is in an unnatural position which weakens some of our back muscles and makes others tense up while doing extra work. This creates micro-injuries and in turn those so-called knots that your massage therapist keeps talking about and breaking up. These are trigger points, sensitive spots in soft tissue, and too many of them cause the so-called “myofascial pain syndrome” which means that at some point, the pressure becomes too much, your movement becomes limited and pain occurs.
If you don’t do anything about your pains, they can get worse, spread, and limit you further. This happens because when you start experiencing pain, the muscles around your primary pain spot will tense up even more, to keep you from moving and experiencing even more pain. It’s a vicious circle. These knots also reduce circulation which is why your arms might start to tingle. If this happens, see your doctor.
How to fix it
If the culprit is an injury, you will just have to wait it out or seek the help of a professional. If not, follow these steps to loosen your knots.
- If it’s really bad, take some pain meds first. It’s really hard to do anything until the pain subsides at least just a bit.
- Next, take a hot shower. The next step will be much easier if your muscles are warm.
- Stretch. This is what’s actually going to solve the underlying problem. Start slowly and gently and gradually increase the intensity.
- If you have one, use a TENS machine. TENS stands for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation. If you’ve never heard of it, it’s that thing where you apply a couple of electrodes directly on your skin and it makes your muscles twitch. This will decrease your recovery time by a lot.
If you can, treat yourself and get a massage. But not any kind. An intense Thai massage, for example, will only make things worse at this point. See a licensed massage therapist that has experience with this kind of issues. It will hurt like hell the next day but in a good way and then completely disappear the next.
So let’s rewind back to stretches. This is what to do.
Start with a simple child’s pose. Try and really stretch your arms as far as you can. Then take deep breaths. Breathing not only helps with enduring the stretch but actually stretches your muscles even further because it expands your rib cage.
Then take this simple pose to the next level by stretching to the side. Spend some time on your left, then on the right and then repeat one more time.
Rest in the center for a bit and then continue to downward facing dog. Alternate between child pose and downward dog a couple of times.
Finish in child pose. From there take your right arm and push it under your chest towards your left shoulder. This is thread the needle. Spend some time in this pose. Again take deep breaths because this deepens the stretch. Go back to child pose and do the same with your left arm.
Again finish in child pose. From there lift yourself to all fours. The next stretch is alternating between the cat and cow poses. Inhale and arch your back towards the ceiling. This is cat. Exhale, bring your back down and lift you head and butt. This is cow. Repeat at least 5 times.
Then sit back on your legs. We are going to do half of an eagle wrap. The eagle wrap pose involves wrapping the legs as well but we only need to stretch our upper body and not worry about balance. Wrap your hand straight in front your eyes bent at the elbow like so. First wrap your left arm around your right, then the opposite.
And last but not least, head stretches. This is the most important step but also the hardest, which is why we do them last. By now your muscles should be both warmer and stretched a bit. But if your pain is quite intense, you can skip them for the first day.
Start by lightly tilting your head forward. Add some pressure to the back of your head with your hand if you can.
Then do some side stretches. This should not be a problem and is only meant to facilitate the next step.
The most critical stretch is tilting your head to the side and slightly forward. Help yourself with your hand. When you start to feel more comfortable with this stretch, extend the opposite arm away from your body and bend at the wrist. This will deepen the stretch even further.
How to prevent it
I started with the how to fix it section since if you’re having this problem right now, this is what you really need, right? But after you do fix it, it’s better to do something that will prevent it from happening again (until you forget, like I did, d’oh!).
Well, what to do prevention-wise is going to depend on why it happens to you. But it won’t hurt if you try them all either.
Improve your posture
Try and consciously straighten yourself up if you sit down a lot. If it doesn’t work or you just keep forgetting, get a posture corrector. There are a million versions out there and I had the opportunity to try a bunch of them so here is what I’ve learned. Some really pull your shoulders back and you immediately feel a correcting effect and some are much gentler and really soft.
My advice is to get the later. The former are usually really uncomfortable which is why you will wear them less and as soon as you will put it off you will start slouching again. A posture corrector should not be doing the job for you. It’s supposed to be a reminder so that you keep your posture even after you take it off. So get something comfortable and try to wear it a lot until good posture becomes second nature.
Of course, there is also the seriously uncomfortable and at the same time doesn’t really do anything kind. Stand clear, you will spot this type a mile away, don’t worry.
If you work long hours at a computer invest some time in a good setup. The height of your desk (and with it your keyboard) is important but most importantly fix the height of your display. You should be looking straight into it and not down to it. This is especially critical if you use a laptop.
Stretching is your best friend while trying to fix this problem but you should also do it as a prevention measure. The exercises are the same, but you can skip the last one and be careful not to overstretch. You can be gentler when doing them regularly.
Do strength training
The stronger your back muscles are, the less they are susceptible to “abuse”. Once I started doing some strength training and not just cardio, those marathon ironing sessions stopped becoming a problem. It’s still not enough to endure carrying a baby though, so I learned I have to do a lot of stretching as well.
If you have a gym membership but tend to use it just for the cardio classes like I did, take another 10 minutes after you finish the classes and do a quick round up of all the machines that target upper and also lower back muscles.
If you don’t have a gym membership there’s still a lot of things you can do at home. Either lift some weights at home if you have them or use a couple of water bottles instead if you don’t. Exercises, where you lift your hands over your head, are the best. But you also have a lot of options using only your body weight. All kinds of push-ups will help but the best are V push-ups.
Hope this helps.