A common problem I see in the clinic is a combination of upper back, shoulder, and neck pain. One of the most effective treatments that I have found to relieve the pain and tension is a treatment plan combining; acupuncture, massage (myofascial release or tuina), and a simple yoga plan to speed up recovery and most importantly, keep the pain away.
I am going to share with you:
– Some of the causes of upper back and neck pain,
– How acupuncture works to get rid of the pain, and
– Some things you can do for yourself that can help relieve pain.
I am going to come at this from a traditional Chinese and eastern medicine point of view, because this is my area of expertise. (Please be aware that some of these concepts do not correlate to the Western medicine model).
Causes of upper back and neck pain
An important aspect in Chinese and eastern medicine is the body, energy and mind, (or jing, qi, shen in Chinese medicine). A disorder at any of these levels could be the root cause of pain, and there may be more than one element of body, energy, or mind involved.
Most cases of back and neck pain are caused by:
– Muscles, ligaments, tendons, etc that may be too tight (or even too loose). This could happen suddenly from injuries, or from sleeping awkwardly.
– A gradual onset, for example – poor posture, sitting for a long period of time, or looking at your phone for too long.
– It is also very common to be caused by a mixture of the above. For example, gradually over time your muscles may become tight and trigger points form. As a result if you move too suddenly you may trigger the pain or injury.
If the energy (qi) is blocked you are more likely to experience pain in your upper back and neck. Comparatively, if energy (qi) is flowing in harmony and balance, there is less chance of pain being present.
In essence, energy is one of the main underlying root causes of pain in Chinese medicine.
What are common causes of a blockage or disharmony of qi?
The body – for example, muscles of the neck become tight and form trigger points. In Chinese medicine a trigger point is called an Ashi point and is caused by a blockage of qi. Trigger points and tight muscles can pull on tendons, ligaments and joints creating less space. Due to this, energy channels like nerves or more subtle meridian channels can become blocked and impinged causing pain.
The emotions – In Chinese medicine, the seven emotions have different effects on the qi of the body. The most common emotions that could contribute to upper back and neck pain are excessive worry, overthinking, and anger. Worry, overthinking and stress knot the qi – this commonly affects the shoulder, upper back, neck area, and digestion. Anger makes the qi rise up to the head and neck area this can cause too much qi to be stuck above.
The energy of the environment – the four seasons – summer, autumn, winter, spring, and the 6 qi’s – damp, cold, dry, heat, summer heat, and wind all have an effect on the qi of the individual. Common environmental factors that cause neck and upper back pain are wind and cold. These can affect the meridian channels causing pain.
In Chinese medicine, the mind and your energy are interrelated, this is because the mind (or intent) guides the qi. In the Tibetan system of yoga and medicine, there is an analogy:
“The mind is like a lame person with no legs, and the energy is like a blind horse. By themselves, they can not function properly. But together, the lame rider (mind) can direct the horse (energy) where to go”.
As such, any disharmony in the energy can affect the mind, and the mind, thoughts, and emotions can affect the energy and body.
Treatment for upper back and neck pain in traditional Chinese medicine
Acupuncture for upper back and neck pain
After consultation and diagnosis, a treatment plan will be made. There is no one size fits all with traditional Chinese medicine acupuncture. Ten different people with the same pain and injury could get ten totally different treatment plans. Acupuncture aims to address the root cause of the problem. This could be at any level of the body, energy, and mind. Various acupuncture points and methods to manipulate the acupuncture needle will be used to unblock, harmonize, and balance the energy.
Massage for upper back an neck pain
Massage for upper back and neck pain combined with acupuncture is very effective for tension and pain relief. The massage modalities that I use are traditional Chinese tuina massage, and myofascial release. Myofascial release is amazing especially if everything is feeling tight and constricted.
Other possible methods used in a treatment plan for neck and back pain are:
Home remedies for upper back and neck pain
Yoga for upper back and neck pain is fantastic. It is by far my favorite self-practice. Whenever I have pain or tension this is my first go-to option. Good quality authentic yoga can help you to address the root cause of the pain, and tension at the level of the body, energy, and mind.
Taichi or Qi Gong
This is my second go-to for pain and tension. It is excellent for relieving tension and stress. Taichi and qi gong, like yoga, can address the root cause of the pain and tension at the level of the body, energy, and mind.
Myofascial release exercises
These are often simple and effective movements to help you stretch and release the fascia of the body. In the clinic, I often prescribe myofascial release exercises for upper back, neck, and shoulder pain.
There is no one size fits all treatment for upper back and neck pain. To become pain tension and stress-free you need to address the root cause of the problem, this will also ensure the best long-lasting results. I have found the healing and wisdom traditions of the east to be the most effective. I would recommend getting a tailor-made treatment plan with acupuncture and massage. And finding a home practice that suits you like yoga, tai chi or self-myofascial release to keep the pain and tension away.