Cause of Upper Back Pain

upper back pain caused by muscle spasms impinging on nerves and cervical bonesUpper back muscle pain spans from your skull to the middle of your spine. Each of the muscles of the upper back are primarily responsible for pulling your head back (so you can look at the ceiling), lifting your shoulders up, or pulling your shoulder blades toward your spine.

Upper Back Pain Is Caused By Muscles:

  • Trapezius – Pulls your head back, lifts your shoulders up, and draws your shoulder blades together
  • Levator Scapulae – Lifts your shoulders up toward your ears. The nickname is “the shrug muscle”
  • Splenius Capitis – pulls your head back so you can look at the ceiling. If the muscle is in spasm and you try to bring your head forward, and down, the muscle will put a strain on the base of your skull and along your spine to T3.  You will feel upper back muscle pain
  • Splenius Cervicis – pulls your head back so you can look up
  • Rhomboids – draws your shoulder blades toward each other. As you look at this graphic you can imagine the pain you would feel in your upper back if the muscle had a “knot” that was holding your shoulder blade back, and you tried to bring your arm & shoulder blade forward.
  • Erector Spinae – a large group of muscle fibers spanning the entire distance from your skull & upper back to your sacrum.

When any of these muscles are in spasm they will prevent you from moving in the opposite direction and you will feel the pain in your upper back.

There are muscles of your posterior shoulder that will refer pain to your upper back:

  • Infraspinatus – Brings your shoulder blade toward your spine.
  • Supraspinatus – Assists in lifting your arm out to your side
  • Teres Minor & Teres Major – Draws your arm toward your body & rotates your arm.

Primarily this is happening because they are responsible for moving your shoulder blade or arm, and when there is a spasm in the muscle fibers it is preventing the easy movement of your arm so you will feel pain at the back of your shoulder. Many people describe the pain referral area as upper back pain, while technically it is shoulder pain.

Chapters 7, 8, and 9 of The 15 Minute Back Pain Solution demonstrates how to self-treat upper back muscle pain, and the burning pain you get between your shoulder blades.


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