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massage upper back painYour upper back tension may start out as minor. You catch yourself in awkward positions in an eager attempt to stretch out your shoulders.  Your friends and co-workers give you funky looks as you try to crack your back or press up against the corner of a wall to get those tight spots.

At other times your upper back tension may flare up into really sharp pain as you move your neck or shoulders. Sometimes it might hurt you to breathe which really freaks you out.

Worse still, you may experience pain that radiates into the shoulder or into your arm which causes you to seek out medical help. These symptoms may seem out of the blue and unrelated to your normal upper back tension.

Muscle strain, tightness,  and trigger points in muscles of the upper back can cause these symptoms and massage therapy can alleviate this stress. 




2nd layer upper back

These are the layers of muscle of the upper back. They act as stabilizers of the head, neck, spine, and shoulders. It is easy to see why upper back pain and tension is common and complex

Soft Tissue Problems

Upper back pain is a common complaint from people seeking massage therapy.  Upper back pain is common because it is a complex structure made of many spinal joints, rib joints, and the shoulder blades. 

The muscles that make up the upper back belong to the shoulder blades, the spine, and the neck. Many of these muscles act as posture stabilizers of the neck, shoulders, and spine lending the upper back to lots of misuse and abuse. 

Also interesting to note, many muscles of the upper back attach onto the ribs and aid in breathing.  If these muscles are tight or strained many people may report pain as they breathe in. Coughing very hard may strain some of these muscles as well. This commonly affects the giant spinal muscle group called the paraspinals or erector spinae muscles.

Even symptoms of  tingling and pain can be felt in the arms and hand from muscle strain and trigger points in the upper back.



trapezius trigger points

Example of trigger points in the trapezius muscle. The trapezius is a stabilizer of the head, neck, spine, and shoulder blades. Although the illustration does not show it, trigger points in this muscle can send pain down to the arm.

erector spinea trigger points

The erector spinae attach all along the ribs. When this muscle is tight it can be painful to breathe. It also can cause a sense of stiffness around the spine.












Causes Of Strain

It is important to note that generally speaking the muscles of the back of the body work to hold you up. Postures such as hunched over a computer or a car seat that is too far back puts your head neck, and shoulders over your center of gravity causing the muscles to work harder than they need to. 

Add this postural overload with recreational sports like tennis, weightlifting, or running and you have a recipe for chronic tightness and pain.

Massage therapy can greatly aid in tightness and pain in the upper back by addressing the lack of circulation and muscle waste that occurs from muscle overwork.

Structural Disorders

Disc problems are unusual in this area because of the ribcage as the ribcage limits a lot of movement in this area. However, in high impact sports, severe trauma, or scoliosis curves can cause structural issues to the discs and rib joints.

Why Does it Last So Long? 

Chronic postural overload on the joints messes with the joint receptors which also creates muscle imbalance. These imbalances lead to chronic strain patterns that often affect the neck, shoulders, arms, and hands.

By releasing chronic tension in the deep spinal muscles can help restore this balance. Releasing the chronic fibrosis in the spinal muscles will help the joints have more motion and releases stress off the joint receptors.

It can be important to address other postural factors from the shoulders, low back, and hips especially in long lasting pain problems.


1. Muscolino, Joseph E. The Muscle and Bone Palpation Manual. St. Louis: Mosby, 2009. 144,348,360. Print.


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 matt-squareMatthew Snow is a Licensed Massage Therapist in Cos Cob, CT. If you would like to schedule or make an appointment call (203) 936-6379 or email