Upper back muscles and shoulder muscles. What is their relationship?
It is difficult to define the relationship between the muscles of the shoulder and upper back because influences are coming from every direction of the body. Due to this complexity, it can be hard to tell what is actually causing pain in the upper back and shoulders.
Here’s what I mean.
Muscle groups attach –
- the arm bone to the scapular or shoulder blade;
- the shoulder blade to the rib cage on the front and back of the chest;
- the shoulder to the neck;
- the upper back to the neck;
- the shoulder blade to the spine;
- the lower back up to the arm.
Like a freeway, these muscles go everywhere.
You might have a problem in your lower back that drags on the muscle attached to the shoulder, giving you shoulder pain. Or pain between your shoulders and up into your neck. The likely cause is tightness in the pectoral muscles on the front of your chest, dragging the shoulders forward, and putting excessive strain on your back. It becomes a tug of war between the muscles on the front and back of the shoulders. Targeted stretching will relax the pectoral muscles and take the strain off the back muscles.
You can also get referred pain in the shoulder from problems with your liver. Pain in your shoulder, or back muscles, can also be referred from heart problems or reflux. I have treated a number of people over the years who thought they were having a heart attack. After the cardiac tests returned negative, osteopathic treatment and home stretching exercises resolved the problem.
Where is the pain coming from?
As I have said, the muscle groups go in all directions plus they overlay each other. This can make it difficult for the lay person to diagnose whether the pain is coming from the back, the shoulders, or both.
Typically, upper back muscle pain is centralised close to the spine. The pain can radiate upwards into the neck, and out towards the shoulders.
Shoulder muscle pain is more lateral. Pain presents around the shoulder blade and in the trapezius muscle on the top of your shoulders, then up into the neck. Pain between the shoulders blades can either be from the upper back or shoulder muscles because they overlay.
Luckily, the cause of strain in both groups is similar. If we rule out some of the more serious medical issues, then poor posture, like slouching and poor work place habits, will aggravate both groups of muscles. As we slouch, the shoulders drop forward and put a lot of strain on the muscles that strap the arm and shoulder blade to the body. If the muscles that strap the edge of the shoulder blades to the spine are involved, (which they usually are), and if our upper body slouches forward, for any reason, then you have the deeper spinal muscles and the surface shoulder muscles all tight and painful in one area. Add to this vertebral misalignment, and you have three major issues going on in one place. This can feel like you have a knife in your back and often it feels like you just can’t get away from it.
If any vertebra are out of alignment then that will be irritating nerves, which will be irritating muscles. Usually the pain is quite close to the spine, but this can also affect the shoulder muscles where the pain will radiate outwards. A session with your osteopath will correct these disturbances and your pain will go away.
Stress of course is a big one. If you have ongoing emotional and mental stress, then you can have pain everywhere. Up and down your back, across your shoulders and into your neck. Ultimately, we need to deal with these issues before our back, neck and shoulder problems can go away.
Inherited body structure
We all inherit our basic body structure. If you inherit a more straight back, then you are the lucky ones. If you inherit a more forward bending posture, then you are at a disadvantage and will have to work harder to keep your body upright. Targeted stretching will help relieve muscle stress and strain, helping to prevent an even more pronounced stoop, while strengthening the back muscles will encourage better posture.