Most cases of upper right back pain — that is, pain that occurs below the neck and above the lower back, usually around the right shoulder blade — are caused by torn or stretched muscles and ligaments, though there are number of reasons this can happen as well as a range of other possible causes. Sudden trauma, like a car accident; muscle overuse, as happens with repetitive motions; and poor posture are some of the easiest to diagnose. More complicated conditions like gall bladder disease and pinched spinal nerves can be harder to spot, but can often be more serious to the patient. Most medical professionals recommend that people get help for any pain that is persistent, throbbing, or that interferes with daily life and work.
Trauma and Injury
The majority of upper back pain is caused by trauma or injury. In many cases the pain begins shortly after the triggering event, but not always; back issues sometimes develop months or even years after an injury, which can make identifying the source somewhat complicated. Many of the muscles connecting the arms and central back are deep and dense, and injuries can go unnoticed if they happen underneath many layers. It isn’t until a person moves in a new way or exposes the injured tissue that the pain is felt.
Whiplash is a very common example. This sort of injury happens when a person’s head and neck jerks forward and then backward very suddenly, and is a common complaint of car accident victims. Neck tenderness is sometimes felt right away, but upper back pain — on either the right or left side — often turns up some time later. Any number of slip-and-fall accidents where a victim landed or put weight on his or her right arm can also lead to upper right back pain later on down the line.
Muscle Overuse and Strain
Muscles anywhere in the body typically have to be warmed up and toned in order to endure prolonged or repetitive activities. Someone who hasn’t really used his or her upper back muscles with any regularity before spending several hours raking the lawn, for example, or playing a game of touch football may wake up with a really sore shoulder or back on their dominant side. The same thing is also common for athletes or anyone else just beginning a regimen of using certain muscles repetitively. Starting slow is usually the best bet, but once the pain arrives a few days of rest is typically the best remedy.
Back pain may also be related to poor posture. The spine is in many ways the anchor of the whole body, and when it gets misaligned a lot of things can go wrong. “Good” posture is usually defined as sitting or standing in such a way that the spine is held more or less perpendicular to the ground, without arching, twisting, or kinking.
People who hunch over a computer screen for long stretches at a time or who spend many hours driving are some of the most common victims of poor posture, but the condition can happen to anyone. Toting small children around, carrying heavy bags with just one arm, and even just simple slouching can all contribute. When people hunch their shoulders forward, their chest muscles can shorten which strains back muscles. Learning how to more evenly distribute weight, paying more attention to standing position, and finding ergonomically positioned desk chairs are some of the easiest ways to prevent and treat this sort of problem.
Not all spinal problems are muscular, though, and pain sometimes happens as a result of nervous system problems. A pinched nerve in the neck is a relatively serious cause of back pain that can lead to intense throbbing. Nerves can get pinched for a couple of different reasons, but herniated discs and bone spurs near the spine are some of the most common. In these cases pain on the upper right side is often just one of several more serious symptoms, including numbness and loss of sensation.
Gall bladder disease is one of the more serious causes of upper right back pain, though it isn’t something that most people associate with the back or spine. People who have gallbladder problems often complain of an ache or feeling of pressure in the upper abdomen, and in some cases this pain can spread toward the right shoulder blade. Many people with gall bladder disease also experience nausea and vomiting, and the condition is very serious.
Various cancers can also be to blame. Kidney, lung, and pancreatic cancers often cause pain to radiate outwards from the abdomen and can in some cases extend up the back. Blood cancers like leukemia can have similar symptoms. In all of these cases back pain is just one of many, often more serious, signs that something is wrong, but can be a good place to start with a diagnosis.
Diagnosing the Problem
Diagnosing back pain is often something of an art, in part because of how frequently it occurs with other symptoms and the length of time that can pass between the actual injury or triggering event and the moment the patient feels pain. Most medical professionals begin with a full medical history and examination of the complete back, neck, and spinal region before identifying the exact cause.
When pain doesn’t seem to be rooted in any serious injury, healthcare providers often recommend ice packs and anti-inflammatory medications, many of which are available over the counter. People who aren’t in serious or debilitating pain may also want to try massage, hot and cold compresses, or acupuncture. Pain that persists should usually be checked out, and doctors can sometimes prescribe muscle relaxants if the injury is interfering with a patient’s daily life and work. In extreme cases, surgery or physical therapy may be required.
People should generally refrain from long periods of physical activity that may exacerbate muscular strains, but light exercise can sometimes be useful for stretching sore muscles and ligaments, too. Medical professionals are usually best able to make recommendations after they’ve had a chance to properly diagnose the problem in person, and patients are usually discouraged from self-treating without at least a consultation with a professional.