It comes as no surprise that the incidence of upper back pain is increasing in an era of rising screen time, sedentary work, and long commutes. Many people have come to accept their upper back pain as part of life. I, too, was among those people several years ago after suffering a compression fracture in my mid-back from a snowboarding accident. Two years after my injury I had worse pain than two months after the fracture occurred. I couldn’t make sense of it: my doctors told me my fracture had healed great. The problem was that I was sitting more than ever before, had poor posture, and allowed my back to get really weak.
Times have changed
Our addiction to screens for both work and pleasure has been a major factor in increasing upper back pain. According to research from RescueTime, a phone use app, people generally spend an average of three hours and 15 minutes on their phones every day. Young adults look at their phones between 45 and 70 times a day. The New York Post wrote last year that Americans are spending half of their waking hours in front of screens (TV, computer, and phone). This all adds up to more sitting, less spinal movement, and more strain on our postural muscles.
So why does this lead to pain? Because spines need motion! The joints of our spine need to move in order to maintain healthy cartilage, range of motion, and bone density. Bones and cartilage are living tissue and require appropriate stress to be healthy. Our back muscles are just as important and benefit from day-to-day motion in addition to regular resistance activity. When we stare at screens and slouch in our chairs we over-stretch certain back muscles, allow our chest muscles to shorten, and increase strain on our spines.
Strengthen, strengthen, strengthen
Eight years ago I did not know how to get out of this cycle of chronic upper back pain. Luckily, today I do. I was able to see a physical therapist who helped me get to the bottom of it (and, admittedly, one physical therapist who didn’t). So what helped me? Recognizing that my back was weak! For a former swimmer and water polo player this was hard to admit. I could still hammer out 50 pushups in a row and run a sub-6 minute mile, but my back couldn’t handle sitting for 30 minutes straight.
With the help of my PT, I started aggressively strengthening my mid-back muscles. I started doing exercises like rows, planks, and deadlifts (an often overlooked exercise for mid-back strength). I committed to a five day a week training plan. I stretched my back over a foam roller daily. And, guess what, I got better.
Additionally I improved my computer setup. Like most grad students I was using a laptop for all my computer needs. The downside of a laptop is the inability to have an ergonomic position for both the arms and the back. If the keyboard is at an appropriate height, the screen is about 12 inches lower than it should be. I ponied up $20 for a used monitor and brought my screen up to an appropriate height. This in conjunction with strengthening helped me to become nearly pain-free within a month.
I share my story because I want other people living with upper back pain to know that, in most cases, it can be improved or completely resolved. If you’re living with upper back pain don’t hesitate to schedule a physical therapy appointment with your local physical therapist to see if you too can relieve your back pain.
Bob Cranny, PT