Poor posture, shallow breathing, and shutdown emotions wreak havoc on your back. Try these daily shifts to release the physical and emotional roots of upper back pain.
Your upper body is the seat of the complex movements of your shoulders, arms, and head. Emotionally, it houses your heart and corresponds with how much you are carrying on a metaphysical level. How you move through the day both emotionally and physically can be the source of a great deal of pain. When exploring how to ease upper back pain, it’s important to look at physical as well as emotional contributors.
Physical and Emotional Sources of Upper Back Pain
Think of what you do most often during the day. You probably spend time on your computer and your phone. At some point, you cook, do dishes, or read. Consider your body posture for all of these activities. Your shoulders are most likely rounded forward, your chin tilted down and forward, and your breath probably doesn‘t go farther down than your chest.
This posture creates an imbalance in your muscles and can result in chronic back pain. The muscles of your chest become shorter and tighter as they pull your shoulders forward so that your arms can reach the steering wheel, hold the book, or wipe down the counter. The muscles of your upper back get pulled, so they must lengthen, but since your body wants to maintain stability, it also keeps tension on those muscles in an attempt to keep your shoulder blades in proper alignment.
The trapezius muscles that sit on top of your shoulders are probably slightly, or dramatically, pulled up as a result of stress in your life or trying to keep the weight of your stabilized. This tension in your neck and shoulders may even extend up into your neck and can be the source of headaches.
In addition to all of the holding and tightness in the muscles, chances are you are breathing shallow, allowing your breath to only reach your chest before exhaling. This type of breathing keeps you in a negative feedback loop with your nervous system; your shallow breathing increases your stress response which in turn keeps your breathing shallow.
Emotionally, drawing your shoulders forward is a protective mechanism for your heart. The posture and the feeling of being shut down from your heart center can feed off of one another, each increasing the other and a key emotional meaning of upper back pain. From an emotional level, the shoulders correspond with how much you are holding in your life, how much you carry. Taking some time to explore where in your life you are carrying too heavy a load, whether that is a physical, emotional, or spiritual, can offer some insight into how to ease upper back pain.
[Also read: “Separating Physical Pain From Emotional Pain.”]
How to Ease Upper Back Pain
It’s important to take breaks from the work you do in front of you throughout the day. Change the position of your body: stand up and walk around or lay down. Whichever posture break you take, incorporate these stretches and visualizations to relieve the physical and emotional causes of upper back pain.
Be sure to only do movements that feel good. A stretch may feel intense if you tap into a place that is really tight, but it should not feel painful. Have the intention to be fully present to your emotional body as well, honoring any emotions that arise as you release bound muscle fibers and find a more open and neutral posture.
- Begin by shifting your breath so you are filling your belly with your breath. Notice how your upper back can release and let go as you do this. Affirm that you are letting go, even just for this moment, anything you are carrying on any level. Chronic back pain can be the result of shallow breathing, so learning how to breathe deeply is vital.
- Your breath is also a direct source to stimulate your vagus nerve, which relays to your nervous system that it is safe to relax, to settle into the "rest and digest" mode that is at the heart of all healing. Exploring the emotional meaning of upper back pain is facilitated by breathing fully and deeply.
2. Releasing through movement.
- When sitting or standing start by rolling your shoulders slowly back and around in circles. Slowly lift your elbows and roll them with your shoulders to increase the range of motion.
- Gently lift your chin so your gaze finds the seam of the ceiling and wall opposite you. Then drop your chin slowly, feeling the length in the back of your neck.
- Lift your chin to neutral and slide it slightly back, feeling as if the top of your head is being lifted up and your ears line up over your shoulders.
- Drop your ear gently to one shoulder and then the other, and then turn your head to one side and then the other.
- Clasp your hands in front of you and gently round your upper back as your arms move away from you.
- Bend your elbows and pull them back, keeping them just below shoulder level as you gently squeeze your shoulder blades together.
- Reach your arms up above you and pull your elbows downs, allowing your chest to open.
3. Open your heart to upper back pain on an emotional level.
- If you are standing, open your arms out to the side, elbows just below shoulder level. Stand in a doorway and rest your elbows on each side of the doorway, gently allowing your chest to expand, continue breathing into your belly. Notice if your ribs flare out, if they do, use your deep core muscles to draw them in, protecting your lower back, and amplifying the stretch in your chest.
- Bring your awareness into your heart. Notice any emotions that come up as you create space there. Allow yourself to simply feel whatever arises, without judgment.
- Finish by laying down on your back. Again bend your elbows and have them at shoulder level. Hands point, palms up, to the wall behind your head. Relax, breathing into your belly as your chest softens. Think of someone you love, and notice how that feels in your body. Continue to breathe into your belly. Stay in this position for at least a few minutes.
- As you finish, allow the feeling of love to fill you. You may want to think of someone you love unconditionally, perhaps a person or a pet. Bring one hand to your belly and one hand to your heart and offer yourself feelings of support, comfort, and kindness.
- Find some affirmations that work for you, and speak to what is happening in your body or emotionally. (Not sure how to create an affirmation? Find a set of affirmations to get you started.)
Read more about easing the spiritual and emotional causes of back pain: “Managing Back Pain.”