Causes and Treatments of Upper Back and Neck Pain

April 14, 2019

"Fortunately, back pain can usually be treated with home remedies, including gentle exercises and stretching for both relief and prevention."

With so much of our time spent hunched over our smartphones and our computers, it's no wonder we are seeing a dramatic increase in neck and upper back pain. This poor posture is weakening our neck muscles, causing more joint pain and stiffness, limiting our range of motion, and bringing on headaches. 

But technology is not the only contributor to neck and upper back pain—a muscle or joint injury, herniated disc, a pinched nerve, stress and an inflamed body are all very common contributors to neck and upper back pain.

On today’s show, Dr. Nancy, Lin, PhD, holistic nutritionist demonstrates unique exercises, stretching techniques, and other measures you can use to relieve and prevent neck and upper back pain.

Video Highlights

    • 03:00: Top causes of neck and upper back pain
    • 03:15: How are you sleeping?
    • 04:37: Ice therapy
    • 07:44: Hot shower
    • 09:45: Epsom salt bath
    • 11:45: Essential oils and massage
    • 14:30: More contributors to back pain
    • 15:17: Inflammation and back pain
    • 16:39: Muscle deconditioning and poor posture
    • 16:59: Muscle deconditioning
    • 19:18: Correcting these issues
    • 20:04: Exercises to improve muscle strength
    • 21:32: Control Articular Rotation (C.A.R.)
    • 22:58: Shoulder roll
    • 25:36: Self-hug
    • 28:19: Control Articular Rotation of the neck
    • 31:30: Standing shoulder stretch
    • 32:48: Child's pose
    • 35:04: Another unnamed one
    • 36:11: Bridge pose
    • 37:24: Recap

Top treatments for neck and back pain

Change how you sleep 

Do you sleep on your stomach, on your side, or on your back? If you are frequently waking up with a stiff neck, you're probably sleeping in a position that contributes to that. Specifically, people who sleep on their stomachs tend to have more neck and upper back pain than people who sleep on their backs or sides. Sleeping on your stomach often forces your head and neck to contort into unnatural positions for 5 - 8 hours at a time, and is a major contributor to neck and upper back pain. Try to sleep on your back or on your side, and make sure you have a good support under your neck. 

Changing your sleep posture can also help with neuropathy. If you're waking up in the middle of the night with tingling, numb, arms and fingers, try sleeping on your back. If you're sleeping on your side, you're cutting off circulation and putting pressure on your nerves. When you sleep on your back, puff up your chest and tuck your spine between your shoulder blades. This takes some getting used to, but it does relieve the pressure on your nerves and spine, and reduces burning sensations and tingling. 

Ice therapy

One of Dr. Nancy's first recommendations for treating a sore neck is ice therapy. Use an ice pack, a bag of ice, or even a frozen bag of peas. Simply wrap and ice pack in a towel and put it on the area where you're experiencing stiffness to reduce the pain and swelling. Do this for 10 - 15 minutes to calm your entire body, then repeat as needed. 

Hot shower

This is a great way to loosen up the neck muscles and relieve joint stiffness in your neck and upper back. This also increases the blood flow to the muscles and joints in your neck and back. If you're able to adjust the force of the water in your shower head, select a pulsing option and let the water massage your neck. Stay underneath the shower head for five minutes or so, to help reduce the pain and soreness. Also try alternating between hot and cold water on the painful area area. This shocks the body, increases blood flow, and the cold water helps reduce inflammation in the area experiencing pain. Use hot water for 4 - 5 minutes, then cold for 30 - 60 seconds, and repeat the cycle 3 or 4 times at the end of your shower.

Epsom salt baths

If you have access to a tub, this is a game-changer! It's super inexpensive as well. Epsom salts now come with all kinds of pleasant aromas from essential oils, but they are basically just a bag of salt. Empty it out into a nice, warm bath to relieve the muscle tension and pain. Epsom salt contains magnesium, a natural mineral that relaxes muscles, and reduces swelling. After a hard workout or a stressful work day, put 2 cups of epsom salt in the tub and relax to soothe your entire central nervous system and reduce pain. You can also use plain epsom salt and add your own essential oils if you like. 

Essential oils/massage

Lavender, peppermint, birch, and other oils can help ease the pain as well. Birch, especially, has a menthol element that feels kind of like icy hot. Using these oils topically can help promote the healing and relaxation of your muscles. Use a few drops of lavender or your favorite essential oil in an unscented massage oil, with a carrier oil like avocado, jojoba, or coconut oil and massage it into your skin. Better yet, get a massage. If you have the resources, go get a good deep tissue, sports therapy, or even Swedish massage to release tension in your shoulders. We hold a lot of tension in our shoulders while we're working or hunched over our phones. A massage will break down the inflammation, soothe your body, and relieve pain. Lavender oil also eases swelling and improves blood circulation, and is great for reducing stress and anxiety.

Other contributors to back pain

When it comes to pain in the upper back from a herniated disc, pinched nerve, or Arthritis, it can be a result of poor posture and muscle overuse, or atrophy (the degeneration of muscle from immobility). Fortunately, back pain from these causes can usually be treated with home remedies, including gentle exercises and stretching for both relief and prevention. 

Inflammation. Inflammation fuels the pain in your body. It's like food to the fire that keeps your body inflamed. This is another reason it's so important to reduce the inflammatory load on your body. You should be doing everything you can every day to reduce the inflammatory load, including:

  • Dietary changes. Exercise alone is not enough, if you are eating fast food and processed food. You need to make adjustments, even just little ones to start with, to eat less inflammatory foods and more inflammation fighting foods
  • Stress reduction. Stress and tension are major contributors to back pain, so take time to reduce stress in any way you can, daily
  • Supplementation. Taking a daily free radical and inflammation fighter, like Smarter Curcumin, reduces the inflammation on your body.

The greatest causes of upper back neck pain are muscle deconditioning, and poor posture.

Muscle Deconditioning

Using your upper back muscles infrequently or incorrectly can cause back pain. Think of it this way: the same way people can condition their muscles over time to be stronger and increase endurance, the reverse is also true. People may decondition their muscles over time by not using them correctly. For example someone who goes from an active lifestyle of running and exercising regularly to a more sedentary lifestyle, will experience this. The muscles start to atrophy, inflammation sets in, and everything gets out of balance.

Poor posture

Just sitting at your desk for too long with incorrect posture can do the same thing. Slouching in a chair over a desk causes loss of strength in the muscles. That's why standing desks which can be elevated when you need to stand up are so helpful. Over time, the weakening of muscles leads to pain in areas that experience strain or irritation. When a person slouches, pressure from gravity and the body itself, pushes the spine, the neck, the discs, and the ligaments. This pressure can lead to joint and other complications.

Fortunately, it's possible to condition the upper back muscles to be stronger and more durable. This process starts with correcting the posture while sitting, and taking regular breaks from your desk, to move around and stretch. Even while traveling, be mindful to move, stretch, and engage your core.

Exercises to Improve Muscle Strength

There are great exercises, stretches, and yoga poses you can do to reverse the weakening of of upper back and neck muscles, relieve joint and muscle pain, and for some of them you don't even have to move from the position your'e currently in.

Control Articular Rotation (C.A.R.). Every ball and socket joint should be able to rotate 360 degrees. So we want to make sure we are encouraging our ball and socket joints to utilize, and expand, and create more range of motion. What happens when we have neck pain and back pain is that our brain has told our bodies we've hit a limit, so we want to reprogram, and break through the threshold of our perceived limit, so that we can prevent future pain and alleviate current pressure. 

Shoulder roll

Bring your shoulders as far forward, as high up, and as far back as you can. When your shoulders back, squeeze your shoulder blades together and hold that position for 5 seconds, then relax down, and move forward again. Repeate 5 - 7 times. Then repeat another 5 - 7 times, but rotating forward instead of backward. Still squeeze and hold when your shoulders are in the back position. Doing this strengthens the muscles, relieves tension, and gives stagnant muscles life while improving the flow of oxygenated blood.

Give yourself a hug

Wrap both your arms around your chest, and dome your back, and pull your shoulder blades apart. You should be able to feel the stretch across the top of your back, and in your neck. On the exhale, open up your chest and arms. Switch your arms so the opposite arm is on top, and repeat. 

Control Articular Rotation of the neck

Cross your arms across your chest, pressing your fingers into your chest, keeping a neutral, straight spine. Don't move your shoulders at all during this exercise. Look down, moving your chin to your chest. Then move your chin to your shoulders, slowly, again being careful not to move your shoulders. Next, move your ear toward your shoulder. Swivel your head back and move it around until your other ear is leaning toward your opposite shoulder. Then move your chin to that shoulder, and back to your chest. This increases the range of motion in your joints and lubricates them. Repeat on the other side. If you feel a pinch during this, back off a little and stay in position for a passive flexibility stretch for 2 minutes.

Standing shoulder stretch

Start by standing up near a wall, or the back of a chair. Place your feet hip distance apart, place your arms straight out in front of you, using the wall or or chair for support, and dip your torso down so your back is flat, and your ears are near your biceps. Push into the wall and retract your shoulder blades in. Breathe there for several seconds, then slowly come up.

Child's pose

Sit on all fours, with knees apart and toes together behind you. Walk your hands forward, bringing your torso to the ground, opening up your arms, and resting your forehead on the ground. Bring your sit bones to the earth, pushing back, keeping your feet flexed. After a couple breaths relaxing into child's pose, move into active child's pose. Staying in child's pose, lift on arm up, and move it back, keeping it straight. Repeat 10 times on each side to start. Don't move your entire back, just the arm. 

Modified Child's Pose

Sitting up, interlace your arms behind you, straighten your arms, and lift your gaze up. If it's too difficult to do this with interlaced fingers, hold a folded up towel behind you instead. Pull apart and lift, puffing out your chest, to activate your triceps, shoulders, and back. 

Bridge Pose

Lay on your back with your knees pointing to the sky, feet flat on the ground, and place both arms straight, palms facing down, pressing against the earth. Then simply lift your hips and pelvis up. If you're able to, interlace your fingers underneath you, and press your sternum high to the sky. 

These exercises should all release tension and pressure in your upper back and neck, and relieve pain.

Summing it up

Smart phones, computers and other electronic devices cause poor posture. Sleeping poorly, herniated discs, pinched nerves, stress, and inflammation can all also cause pain in the neck and back. If your neck pain is caused by your sleeping posture, make sure you're sleeping on your back or on your side.

We also recommend a number of ways to treat neck and back pain including ice therapy, hot showers (alternating hot and cold water), epsom salt baths, massages, essential oils, and taking 2 - 3 minute breaks during work. Practice a series of neck, upper back, and shoulder poses, as well as the yoga poses demonstrated here. 

Also remember to be working daily to reduce the inflammation in your body, including eating an anti-inflammatory diet, clean supplementation support, stress reduction techniques, and regular body movement.

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