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Here’s why your upper back feels more achy than usual, according to a chiro

It started as a niggle, then an ache in your lower back and suddenly, it's become a constant pain in the neck. Literally. That stiff shoulder in the morning? It may not be from sleeping on the wrong side of the bed.

Blame it on the new normal. "Most homes are ill-fitted ergonomically and people were caught off-guard by sudden WFH arrangements," says Dr Kelvin Ng, Doctor of Chiropractic (USA) and clinical director of Family Health Chiropractic Clinic.

Since the pandemic started, many of us have been stationed at less-than-ideal spaces, typing away for hours at our laptops on the floor, the coffee or dining table. More often than not, we do so with our necks titled forward known as forward head carriage and upper back spines rounded.

"Unnecessary stress builds up in the neck and middle back spine," says Dr Ng. “Over time, these spinal bones can become misaligned and this can cause muscle strain, discomfort and even nerve impingement.”

Think about your neck muscles

"Our head weighs about 12lbs (5.5kg) in the neutral position, i.e., when your ear is in line with the midline of your shoulder," says Dr Ng. "It gets heavier with every degree you flex your neck to look at your phone."

Your head can weigh up to 60lbs (27kg) when you flex your neck about 60 degrees to watch movies on your phone. This prolonged posture will pull and strain the muscles that are attached to your skull.

The longer these muscles remain strained, the sooner and more your neck will start to ache, sometimes accompanied by headaches.

But why are we only feeling the pain now?

“Upper back pain commonly arises from posture-related causes and develops over time,” Dr Ng explains. “Our lower back, on the other hand, is the pivot or anchoring point of our spine to the pelvic bones."

"A lot of upper body weight is rested on our lower back. As almost every chore that we do daily involves the lower back, it tends to be more vulnerable," he adds. "Even bending down to pick up something from the floor can set one up for pain, if a proper habitual bending technique is not adopted.”

There are other possible causes

Poorly fitted pillows. A pillow that is too high or too low can lead to tension headaches, neck and upper back pain, not to mention poor sleep.

New or incorrectly performed upper body exercises. "This is especially so for weekend warriors or sports enthusiasts who do not condition their body for new routines or workouts and push themselves past their threshold, or when complex routines are done without proper guidance."

Spinal misalignment. "All muscles are attached to the spine," says Dr Ng. "When spinal bones are misaligned (caused by any of the above), they lead to uneven muscle tension, which can then result in muscle injuries."

Repeated/habitual postural stresses, such as carrying your bag on the same side repeatedly.

Backpacks that are too heavy. "Generally, our backpacks should not exceed 10-20 percent of our body weight, particularly for children."

5 lifestyle changes to ease upper back pain

Minimise the time spent on your phone and computer. Dr Ng also recommends getting a stand for your devices if you use it a lot, and instead of watching videos on your phone, beam it to a smart TV.

Take regular breaks and go for walks. We’re no longer walking to and from the office, or moving around to speak to colleagues, so make an effort to stretch your legs and relieve muscle tension.

Invest in a good pillow. “Having a well-fitted pillow relative to one’s shoulder width can help prevent neck and upper back pain,” he says. “Most pillows available in the market are mass-produced and since everyone’s shoulder widths are different, more often than not we end up sleeping on a pillow that provides little support to our head and neck.”

If you’re a side sleeper and the pillow is too low, your neck is bent sideways and your shoulder squashed as you sleep, resulting in neck, upper back and shoulder pain. And if the pillow is too high, your neck tilts forward (for back sleepers) or sideways (for side sleepers) at an unnatural angle and that can cause pain as well.

Massages may help. “In general, massages can help to relieve upper back pain temporarily, but, if such pains are frequent, the issue can be deeper (such as spinal misalignments) and would require a more in-depth approach.”

See a chiropractor regularly. He or she would be able to help correct the underlying problem and help prevent upper back pain. “Upper back pain can be due to vertebral misalignments in the upper back or neck arising from postural stresses, and chiropractors are trained to correct them.”

Stretches to keep your back and neck limber

  1. Sit on the edge of a chair, interlock your fingers and put them behind your head, then gently arch backwards until you are looking up at the ceiling. Remember to stabilise your abdominal and back muscles. Repeat 10 times.

  2. Place your palms on your shoulders. Then, bring your elbows together until you feel your upper back stretching. Hold for 5 seconds while breathing evenly and return to the starting position. Repeat 10 times.

  3. Roll your shoulders forward, slowly making big circles first before reducing to smaller circles. Then reverse direction. Repeat 10 times.

If the pain isn't going away, see a medical professional

Get help if the discomfort lasts more than 2-3 days. "If it happens repeatedly, then definitely get it checked out, preferably by a chiropractor, who will likely be able to address the cause of the problem."

Singapore-born Dr Kelvin Ng is the clinical director of Family Health Chiropractic Clinic. He graduated summa cum laude from Sherman College of Chiropractic, U.S.A, where he also won the Milton W. Garfunkel Award, the highest award given to each graduating class for having exhibited superior abilities in the academic, clinical, and philosophical aspects of chiropractic.

Dr Ng is a current professional member of The Chiropractic Association (Singapore), where he served on the executive committee for numerous years. He is a mentor for the Koren Specific Technique (KST), and is also trained to provide chiropractic care to babies, infants and children. He is also certified in the Webster Technique by the International Chiropractic Pediatric Association to provide chiropractic care to pregnant women.