Your Neck and Upper Back Pain Could Mean Serious Issues

Selective focus of upset, middle-aged brunette woman suffering from neck pain and upper back pain alone at home.

It's happened to us all before. You slept awkwardly and woke up with a stiff neck, unable to turn your head. Neck and upper back pain can affect every move you make. As our bodies age, aches occur quite frequently, and a stiff neck and back can become an expected nuisance every morning. Some upper back and neck pain can be treated with simple procedures, but there is danger in ignoring your discomfort, which could be an indication of a more serious underlying issue.

At Vitality Integrative Wellness, our job is to get you better and to help you get your life back using safe, effective, non-traditional approaches. In the article below, we'll talk about some of the common causes of neck pain and upper back pain, other symptoms, and medical conditions that you should watch out for, as well as some alternative therapies that can help you return to a normal range of motion.

Common Causes of Neck and Upper Back Pain

Muscle strains or sprains are the most common cause of upper back and neck pain. The levator scapula, a muscle that makes up the back and side of the neck, is frequently the victim of this type of injury. This type of pain is often instigated by an event. Lifting heavy objects, twisting, stretching, or holding an awkward or uncomfortable position are everyday activities that can lead to this type of injury. Overdoing exercises, collisions during sports, and excessive stress are also common causes of neck and upper back strain and sprain. Ignoring a stiff neck or sore upper back for a prolonged period can be dangerous. There are several more serious conditions that accompany the stiff neck symptom and sore or painful areas that can be greatly improved through early detection and effective treatment.

Health Issues Associated with Neck and Upper Back Pain

Cervical Herniated Discs

Herniated discs in the neck can occur the same way as a strain or sprain, but they can also start abruptly with no warning. In a herniated disk, pain occurs when the inner core of the disc presses on sensitive nerve roots in your spine. This pressure can also cause muscle weakness and pain, and tingling in your arms and fingers. Herniated disks can make everyday tasks like brushing your teeth or writing difficult.

Cervical Degenerative Disc Disease

Ordinary wear-and-tear of the bones and muscles of the upper back and neck can cause cervical degenerative disc disease. Trauma, such as a fall or sprain, can also lead to this condition. As time goes on, the discs between vertebrae deteriorate and irritate the nerves in your spine, causing numbness or tingling in your neck, arms, and shoulders, or even pain with a slight movement of neck muscles.

Cervical Osteoarthritis

Cervical osteoarthritis is a condition that occurs when the joints in your neck and back start to wear out. It can cause your neck to feel stiff, especially in the morning or at night. As the joints continue to wear down, you may feel pain and stiffness in your neck and upper back, headaches at the back of your head, and pain that goes down your arms or legs. Sometimes resting helps the stiffness go away, but if you ignore the symptoms for too long, it can cause bigger problems. If you don't get treatment, you might develop cervical myelopathy, which can make it hard to walk and move your arms. Bone spurs can also form and cause pain in your arms and shoulders. It's important to talk to your doctor if you have any of these symptoms, so they can help you get the right treatment.

If you have neck pain, early detection and treatment of cervical arthritis can help reduce the cause of your discomfort and its impact on your daily life. Untreated cervical degenerative disc disease and cervical osteoarthritis may leave you dependent on anti-inflammatory medications or painkillers and even require disc injections or spinal surgery.

Preventing Neck and Upper Back Pain

Stretching and strengthening exercises can help relieve stiffness in your neck and upper back. It's important to consult a physical therapist or doctor before starting any new exercise routine because doing the wrong exercises could cause injuries.

It All Starts With Good Posture

Ergonomics and Desk Hygiene

In today's technological age, most people find themselves at a computer monitor for large portions of their day. Having your workspace set to enhance good posture is vital to maintaining a healthy neck and back and alleviating neck pain symptoms. Proper ergonomics will help with neck pain and may alleviate minor neck pain and back problems long term. Here are some ways to make sure your workspace doesn't become a pain in your neck.

  • Place the monitor directly in front of you, about an arm's length away.
    • The top of the screen should be at or slightly below eye level. If you wear bifocals, lower the monitor an additional 1 to 2 inches for more comfortable viewing.
    • The monitor should be directly behind your keyboard. Place your monitor so that the brightest light source is to the side.
  • Choose a chair that supports your spinal curves.
    • Adjust the height of your chair so that your feet rest flat on the floor or on a footrest and your thighs are parallel to the floor.
    • Adjust armrests so your arms gently rest on them with your shoulders relaxed.
    • If your chair is too high for you to rest your feet flat on the floor — or the height of your desk requires you to raise the height of your chair — use a footrest. If a footrest is not available, try using a small stool or a stack of sturdy books instead.
  • Under the desk, make sure there's clearance for your knees, thighs, and feet. If the desk is too low and can't be adjusted, place sturdy boards or blocks under the desk legs. If the desk is too high and can't be adjusted, raise your chair. Use a footrest to support your feet as needed.
  • Keep key objects — such as your telephone, stapler, or printed materials — close to your body to minimize reaching.
  • Stand up to reach for anything that can't be comfortably reached while sitting.
  • Place your mouse within easy reach and on the same surface as your keyboard.
    • While typing or using your mouse, keep your wrists straight, your upper arms close to your body, and your hands at or slightly below the level of your elbows.
    • Use keyboard shortcuts to reduce extended mouse use. If possible, adjust the sensitivity of the mouse so you can use a light touch to operate it.
    • Alternate the hand you use to operate the mouse by moving the mouse to the other side of your keyboard.
  • If you frequently talk on the phone and type or write at the same time, place your phone on speaker or use a headset rather than cradling the phone between your head and neck.
  • If your desk has a hard edge, pad the edge or use a wrist rest. Don't store items under your desk.

There are a lot of great online resources that provide simple exercises to help you improve your posture. Here is a great example from Lifemark Canada with three easy exercises you can do for poor posture or check out our blog post with six exercises you can do at your desk for better posture.

Getting to the Root of Neck Pain

The first thing we want to look at is our vertebral disc. The vertebral disc is a soft cartilage-type material that separates the bones of the spine, and it acts as a cushion for the discs, but it also allows space for the nerves to exit the spine.  The interesting thing about the vertebral disc is there's not a great blood supply to it, and it typically dies off around the age of 12 to 14 years, so for most of your life, there's no direct circulation going through the disk, and that's why it can be damaged so easily. 

As the disc starts to break down, it begins to degenerate.  It may start to thin slightly, but as it gets more pressure on it, it'll start to bulge. As the pressure gets extreme, the disc herniates, and when the water is almost completely dried out, you get bone-on-bone friction where the discs will be very thin. This friction creates pain and discomfort that is often difficult to treat.

One of the best ways to look at the disc itself is through an MRI study. You can see some thinning of discs or degenerated discs on X-ray, but the best way to visualize all the tissues and the blood flow is with an MRI.

MRI's often lead to the next step of visiting or getting a referral to a neurologist or an orthopedist. Unfortunately, at that point, the treatment options recommended are invasive in nature and can cause lasting damage to the vertebra. These types of treatment are focused on treating the pain and symptoms rather than rehydrating the disc and finding a long-term solution to relieve the pain. Steroidal injections and surgery are traditionally discussed at this stage but know there are non-surgical, natural alternatives available.

How Vitality Integrative Wellness Can Help

Twenty years ago, it was very rare to see people in their 40s and younger with back and neck pain, but that's become a lot more common in the last five or ten years just because we sit so much. At Vitality Integrative Wellness, we recognize the changing landscape of our society's habits and the impact on our bodies.

The goal of Vitality Integrative Wellness is to help patients prevent neck pain and avoid surgery if possible. There are always going to be cases where surgery is necessary, but if you do qualify for one of our programs, our therapies are safe, effective, and natural. Some of the services we offer are spinal decompression, chiropractic care, trigger point injections, regenerative medicine, functional medicine, massage therapy, and cold laser therapy.

Ashley's Story:  From Chronic Back Pain to Living Life

"Huge, huge thank you to Vitality for giving me my life back! I never imagined that when I started treatment 10 months ago that I would be where I am today.

A horseback accident fractured her vertebra. She was told surgery was her only option.

Seven years ago, I was in a horrific horseback riding accident where I herniated five discs in my lower back and fractured my L5. I was told I needed major surgery and would never be able to ride again. Which is the most devastating news when you are a professional athlete. I tried EVERYTHING for years, and nothing worked. I was always in severe pain and often ended up back at the doctor. I gained a ton of weight from not being able to move without pulling my back out again. It was a very dark seven years.

  Woman Looks Up to Sunlight Trying to Break Into The Narrows canyon Desperate for a way to relieve her back pain and avoid surgery, she came to vitality.

My last ditch effort was to try treatment at Vitality. I had zero expectations of success, to be honest. Within the first month, I noticed a HUGE change. For the first time in 7 years, my pain was going away without pain meds. I could actually walk pain-free, started going back to the gym (which had previously been impossible), and by the end of my treatment plan, was training for multiple trekking trips.

Now she's pain-free and conquering mountains...literally.

"November 22, 2022 (9 months after starting my treatment plan), my fiance and I fulfilled our dream of hiking the Narrows at Zion National Park and were married at Angel's Landing - two very challenging hiking trails- neither of which I would have been able to do had I not come to Vitality for treatment.

Thank you so very much to Olivia, who is always so sweet, kind, and patient (even when I had bad days due to the pain), Virginia for keeping me moving so I can continue my trekking training pain-free, and Dr. Jen for always keeping it 100 and pushing me to get back out and get my body back in gear even when I was scared to push it. I could not have done this without you all, and I am so grateful!"

In Conclusion

If you're suffering from persistent, chronic neck pain and back pain, don't ignore it, as it could be an indication of a serious problem. Early intervention can help you get back to the life you deserve.

If you would like to speak with Vitality Integrative Wellness about the natural solutions that we offer, please give us a call at 951-225-4419, and we can get you booked for a consultation. If you’d like more information, you can check us out at our website,  You can also check us out on social media on Facebook and Instagram.