Massage therapy has become a well-accepted health care profession for a variety of conditions, some of which may surprise you, e.g. sleep issues. And most frequently, massage is sought for musculo-skeletal problems – very commonly upper back pain. Your upper back (and mid-back) are actually your thoracic spine, which is quite different from your cervical spine (neck) and lumbar spine (lower back). Your thoracic spine is the strongest and most stable of these three portions of your spine, helping with posture and also protecting your heart and lungs. The muscles of your upper back include the deltoid, teres major, teres minor, infraspinatus, supraspinatus, subscapularis (all of which act on your shoulder joint), and the trapezius, latissimus dorsi, erector spinae and rhomboids muscles (which will also help with arm movement, but are located on your back). Any one or a variety of these muscles may be injured and/or inflamed, and thus may be the source of your upper back pain.
There is usually little risk of serious injury to the thoracic part of your spine, but for various reasons you can still experience great discomfort here. Massage can usually help since this type of pain is often caused by overuse, muscle strain or injury to the muscles and ligaments that support your spine. Other common causes of pain in your upper back include poor posture, herniated disc, arthritis, fibromyalgia and myofascial pain. Massage can help with these causes as well, although with a herniated disc special care is taken re. positioning you in treatment, to ensure that undue pressure is not placed on the bulging disc.
One way that massage can help relieve you of your upper back pain is by improving circulation to the muscles in the local area. This improved blood flow helps bring necessary nutrients to your muscle tissues, and also helps carry away some of the debris caused by inflammation. Inflammation often occurs with physical activity or soft tissue injuries such as muscle strains.
Another way massage helps your upper back is to decrease tension in your muscles. By decreasing muscle tension, your flexibility increases and so does the pain you're feeling in your tight muscles. Sometimes an initial treatment to a sore upper back is not enough to entirely cure you of your pain, but the decreased tension enables you to get back to your normal daily routine.
A third way massage can help is through endorphin release. Endorphins are the chemicals released naturally by your brain (e.g. serotonin) that lower stress levels and help you relax. By doing this, these chemicals help to reduce your pain, an especially useful fact if the pain you're experiencing has been going on for some time.
By Richard Lobbenberg, BSc BHSc DAc
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