The Real Cause Behind Upper Back Pain And Chest Tightness
Do you struggle with chronic upper back and neck pain? Is it difficult to hold good posture without discomfort? Perhaps you even have trouble sleeping at times because of the discomfort. Do you also feel tightness in your chest and shoulders?
If you’re nodding your head ‘yes’ to all of these questions, you may have a condition called “upper crossed syndrome.” While back pain in general certainly isn’t uncommon, upper crossed syndrome is a lesser-known condition that can greatly contribute to back pain, especially if it’s accompanied by tightness in the chest and shoulders. And, when left untreated, it only continues to progress to a worse state.
Don’t worry: if you do fall into this category, the encouraging news is that most cases are completely treatable with the right diagnosis, patience, and consistent conservative care. Let’s explore the causes behind this condition and tangible steps to take toward your healing.
What Is Upper Crossed Syndrome?
Upper crossed syndrome is a deformity of the neck, shoulder, and chest muscles that happens gradually over time. It will generally start with extremely tight back muscles of the shoulder and neck (known as the trapezius and levator scapula). As these muscles take on too much strain, they begin to curve forward. Then, as a result of the forward curvature, the muscles in the front of the chest shorten, weaken, and also become overly tight. Eventually, the muscles of both the upper back and the front chest take on deformities, making it difficult and uncomfortable to maintain good posture. Consistent upper back pain sets in, accompanied by an uncomfortably tight chest.
Upper crossed syndrome largely happens as a result of poor posture, compounded over time. And unfortunately, there are a myriad of reasons that our posture suffers. From staying hunched over a laptop for long periods of time to staring down at a smartphone for hours on end to long commutes in a car, many of our everyday activities don’t necessarily encourage good posture.
Gym-goers should take caution, too. Though many people love the cardio burn from a good spin class, the position that keeps you hunched over the handlebars of a bike also doesn’t encourage good posture. The same goes while using other cardio pieces of equipment.
So what’s a relatively healthy person to do?
Treatment Approaches For Long-Term Success
If you think you may fall in the upper crossed syndrome camp, you may be hesitantly wondering...so what now? Muscle deformities sound pretty serious– and when left untreated, they can be. However, the muscle deformity caused by upper crossed syndrome is largely very treatable and has a great success rate from conservative care treatments especially.
But first, if you think that you may have this syndrome, seek medical treatment as soon as you can. Your success rate and timeline of recovery will look better the sooner you can begin your treatment program. Plus, a professional will be able to guide you through the best approach based on your specific needs.
These are some of the top approaches to treatment to keep in mind as you plan your own recovery.
Maintain Good Posture
Of course, the best treatment is to prevent the condition before it starts. The best way that you can prevent the deformities and pain that come with upper crossed syndrome, is to practice good posture regularly. We say “practice” intentionally here– maintaining strong posture without succumbing to slouching can be tough! To keep up with a practice of good posture, give yourself check-in points throughout the day and ask yourself:
- Am I sitting or standing up straight?
- Are my shoulders back and down?
- Is my core lightly engaged to support my upright posture?
- Is my gaze fixed at eye level?
These simple questions can provide the cues that you need to help maintain good posture.
A large part of the healing process from upper crossed syndrome is to re-train the muscles back to a healthy, natural posture once again. Because of that emphasis, mobility exercises will need to be performed frequently and diligently.
Here’s a common exercise that you should incorporate daily:
Lie with your back to the ground. Place a thick pillow or a foam roller along your spine, and let your arms fall out to your sides. Breathe deeply, and stay in this position for 10-15 minutes. Though this exercise doesn’t seem very active, what it is doing is guiding your body back to a straight, upright posture. It is essentially re-training the slightly deformed muscles back to their natural state by gently holding them there. This exercise can be repeated 3-5 times throughout the day and is especially important at the beginning of your recovery process.
It’s important to note that the first step to getting back mobility in your chest and upper back is an incredibly important one. Once you’ve been able to make enough progress with your mobility, you can continue working with a medical professional in the next phase: strengthening. However, be careful not to get overzealous with strength work from the start; if you haven’t corrected your foundation with the right mobility exercises, your strength work could potentially make matters worse. This is also why it’s incredibly important to work with a medical professional through the healing process, as they will be able to help you identify the phases of recovery that you are in, and how to best move through them.
Sleep Back Pain Away
While sleep alone isn’t going to knock out upper crossed syndrome, creating healthy sleeping habits can play an important role in your recovery. Truth be told, a lot of the focus on sleep is more about making certain that you aren’t operating with habits that could make matters worse. For instance, be sure that your mattress isn’t too cushioned– thick pillow tops and water beds won’t provide the additional support you need while you’re sleeping. Instead, opt for a medium-to-firm mattress. You’ll also need to avoid sleeping on your stomach and ideally your side, as these positions can manipulate the spine and back in different directions that could ultimately lead you to wake up in more pain than what you began with.
For the best sleeping posture, position yourself on your back, and slide a pillow underneath your knees. Sleeping on your back will help keep your spine straight and long while you log some precious Z’s, and the pillow under the knees helps to take some of the pressure off of your back– effectively making it easier and more comfortable to stay lying this way throughout the night.
How Chiropractic Can Help Keep Your Back Healthy
A sizable cause of the discomfort that comes along with upper crossed syndrome is the muscle tightness in the upper back area. This excessive tightness combined with poor posture can easily cause your joints to become misaligned, leading to more inflammation, pressure, and discomfort. Chiropractic care can address these misalignments through the use of gentle adjustments of the spine. When combined with an ongoing rehabilitation plan, consistent chiropractic care can help give your body more support and speed your recovery process.
Additionally, your chiropractor can help ensure that there aren’t any missed diagnoses causing your pain. Your practitioner will be able to curtail treatment to each individual case, ensuring that you receive the best care for your unique needs.
This article is for informational purposes only, and is not a substitute for in-person advice or care from a medical professional.