Deep Upper Back Pain 

Keywords; deep upper back pain, upper limb tension test, cervical facet syndrome, tingling in arms and hands.

The villain of the peace, disturbing your nights and causing a deep constant ache, is often an irritated nerve supply to the rhomboid muscles which is pure C5 or the levator scapular which is also mainly the fifth cervical, but also with contributions from C3 and C4.

They are innervated by the Dorsal Scapula nerve that comes from the mid neck, specifically the C5 root.

Deep upper back pain is difficult to manage for a number of reasons.

  1. It's an area more difficult to adjust than other parts of the spine. 
  2. Diagnostically, it's a complex area. It could be a referred medical problem like lung or rib pathology, in addition to the multiple possible chiropractic conditions that can cause this distressing ache. You'll see more lower down.
  3. The underlying cause could be something ergonomic and not easy to change. Feeding a baby, long hours at the computer, or behind the wheel of a car, truck or bus can certainly be the spoke in the wheel.
  4. An old whiplash injury may have caused degenerative change in the joints of Luschka or the facet joints in the lower neck.
  5. And in general the transition areas of the spine, of which the cervico thoracic junction is but one, are recognised to be clinically challenging.
  6. Shoulder conditions typically cause rhomboid ache as you have to recruit other muscles to raise the arm.

Deep Upper Back Pain

Dorsal Scapular nerve

Neuro anatomy is a difficult subject so just scroll down if you're really not interested in the following paragraph. Sorry, always a tidbit to stretch jah! Notice how this nerve complex lies in the groove just behind the collarbone.

Notice the two terms "root" and "ramus" below.

There are two "roots", one is sensory, the dorsal root, bringing information in from the fingers tips for example. Pain, touch, position sense, mechano receptors and so on.

The other "root" is motor, the ventral root, taking information from the "grey matter" in the spinal cord to the muscles, for example. If you want to raise your arm, the stimulus to the muscle is relayed along the ventral root.

It's these "roots" that are affected by a slipped disc, or degenerative change, or subluxations in the spine. Cervical facet syndrome ....

Tingling in arms and hands

Thumb and forefinger tingling? Then the dorsal nerve "root" of the C6 nerve root is being irritated. Can't do a press up? Then it's probably the motor "root" of C7 that is pinched because the triceps muscle is weak. Trivial details for you, vital stuff for your chiropractor.

Then the two roots join (ignore that bump on the dorsal root) to form a "spinal nerve." (Ignore the white and gray ramuses or rami too).

Then the spinal nerve divides into two "rami". Singular "ramus." It's the ventral ramus of C5 that goes on to form (in part, continuing to form the Median and Ulnar, and other, nerves that supply the arm) the Dorsal Scapular nerve. The nerve that innervates our two muscles, the Rhomboids and the Levator Scapular.


("inter" = between - between two scalene muscles)

The inter scalene triangle is bordered by the anterior and middle scalene muscles (in red), and the first rib below (grey).

From there, the Dorsal Scapular nerve enters the Inter Scalene Triangle and, instead of passing through it, penetrates through the belly of the Medial (middle) Scalene muscle, one of the boundaries of the triangle.

After penetrating the Medial Scalene, the Dorsal Scapular nerve descends, piercing the Levator Scapular, sending off branches to innervate that muscle, and proceeding to supply the Rhomboids.

Anywhere along this path, the nerve root, as it passes through the inter scalene triangle, through the Medial Scalene muscle, whilst piercing the Levator Scapular, there is the potential for irritation; deep upper back pain.

What medical causes should be included?

Let's admit they aren't common, but they must be considered. The only patient that I recall to appear at my chiropractic coalface with deep upper back pain caused by lung cancer was my father. It had already been diagnosed and surprisingly his last days were greatly helped by gentle chiropractic treatment of his deep upper back pain. The cause, not subluxations, but referred pain from the cancerous tissue in his lung; smokers beware.

Secondary cancers, particularly from a primary breast cancer, to the ribs are always a concern in Chiropractic clinics, even years after breast cancer patients have been declared clear.

The rule with cancer is, change your lifestyle or it will probably come back. There's a fine line between what I call a healthy nut neurosis and a determination to completely change your way of life.

Others? I'm sure there are plenty, but lets be realistic: when you hear hoofbeats, don't think zebras! Pancreatic cancer causes deep upper back pain, heart attack causes neck and jaw, back and arm pain. An aortic aneurism... this is an interesting web page: Pathophysiology of Atherosclerosis ...

Chiropractic causes of deep upper back pain

Right, now to the heart of this page. Firstly, I'll list the thoughts that come to my head:

  1. A C5 nerve root lesion. A cervical facet syndrome, a cervical disc syndrome, or joints of Luschka degeneration.
  2. Poor posture at the computer, car or truck causing medial Scalene or Levator Scapular chronic tightness.
  3. Sleeping on your tum.
  4. Popping your own neck.
  5. Thoracic Outlet syndrome ...
  6. T1-2-3-4 upper back spinal subluxation
  7. Cervical ribs ...
  8. Upper rib dysfunction. Rib pain treatment ...
  9. Scoliosis and leg length inequality ...
  10. Self-manipulation causing UncoVertebral Joint Luschka arthritis

In short, there are a lot of possible causes of deep upper back pain.

C5 nerve root lesion

The C5 nerve root, affected for example by a slipped disc in neck supplies sensory innervation to the skin on the side of the upper arm extending down the lower arm towards, but not including the thumb; and muscular innervation to numerous muscles, but usually the biceps and the biceps reflex would be tested.

The deltoid is another muscle often tested for C5, but truth is that there has often been a low grade irritation of the nerve (axillary nerve, C5/C6) leading resulting in painful shoulder pathology such as rotator cuff syndrome ... resulting in pain inhibition during testing.

Because both the biceps and deltoid (and all the other muscles of C5, bar rhomboids) are supplied by C5 AND C6, true neurogenic weakness is not common.

SAR sign

A key sign is the so-called Shoulder Abduction Relief sign in which relief is obtained by placing the hand on the head. It takes the stretch off the nerve root.

ULLT test

Conversely, the Upper Limb Tension Test (a test you can do at home) places increasing stress on the nerve root producing tightness, pain and tingling in the arm.

Upper Limb Tension Test

C6, C7 and C8 nerve root lesions

These roots are not likely to cause upper back pain, but rather pain and tingling in arms and hands, and especially the lower arm and fingers.

T1, T2, T3, T4 nerve root lesions

A T1 nerve root is a primary candidate of suspicion when dealing with deep upper back pain, usually extending in this instance down the inner arm, and sometimes to the chest.

Again the SAR and ULTT tests will be positive.

Specific muscle weakness in the hand will be sought by your chiropractor. In particular, opposition of the thumb and pinkie, and the muscles that you would use to squeeze your fingers together, the PAD myos and apart, the DABs.

Deep upper back pain, and tingling down the inner arm, and weakness in the hand equals a T1 nerve root lesion; or a C5 dorsal scapular problem. Only a careful and thorough examination can work it out.

Cervical facet syndrome

Cervical compression and Spurling's tests

Both the C5 and T1 lesions, if severe, will produce radiating pain when turning the head to the side of pain and then looking up. If extra downward pressure is exerted by your chiropractor, then it's called Spurling's test.

In short, does turning to the same side produce deep upper back pain and/ or tingling and pain in the arm?

Another series of tests that your chiropractor would do are the Cervical Compression tests ... this is a fun page, don't miss it!


I won't write much here as there is extensive coverage of the Thoracic Outlet Syndrome at this Chiropractic Help website. The key sign is that elevation of the arm, instead of relieving the symptoms, makes them worse. Both the artery and the bundle of nerves called the "brachial plexus" are irritated primarily by a subluxated first rib.

It is diagnosed using a difficult test known as Adson's test


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Interesting challenges of the day

1. Mrs B has had one of the nastiest of conditions; vertigo caused by a disturbance in the inner ear. Falling repeatedly and vomiting she consulted her doctor but medication didn't help. After two sessions of the Epley manoeuvres she was 50 percent better. After two weeks she was 75 percent improved; no longer vomiting or falling. She's not enjoying the Brandt Daroff home exercises.

2. Mr S, a 48 year old man, has right low back pain, groin pain and a numb feeling in his lower leg when he sports. For six months he's been off football. He too has two problems; a very treatable lumbar facet syndrome and a very serious blocked artery in the groin; it's called intermittent claudication. Smokers beware.  

3. Mr S looks like the leaning tower of Pisa; he has a slipped disc at L5 making him lean towards the opposite side. It's called the postero lateral disc hernia; we'll fix it, but he has to stop for a week or two. Antalgias are serious so take them seriously. 

4. Mrs V too has two conditions; a chronic low grade sciatica giving her an ache in the right leg, and a threatening Morton's neuroma. She's glad I'm back in Holland; chiropractic fixed it before, and we'll fix it again. 

5. Mrs W is one of the lucky ones, says her doctor. I agree. He says only 40% of patients with lumbar stenosis have a successful operation. We fixed a nasty slipped disc three years ago, but it came back two years later; the surgeon did a fine job but she has a weak ankle now giving her subtalar joint pain; it's routine stuff. 

6. I myself had an acute exacerbation of a femoral nerve lesion last year. One immediate treatment of the new strain by my colleague has fixed the pain in the lower back, but there's some residual numbness in the lower leg; no soaring tomorrow alas.

7. This lady is a 86 year old woman with a 63 scoliosis. Chronic lower back has been her lot in life but she's well pleased with chiropractic and comes for chiropractic help once a month; some conditions you can never cure.

8. She is an 78 year old woman, is doing remarkably well with a bad sciatica. But over 200 pounds she is not losing weight; in fact, gaining despite my suggestions. She's high risk for a stroke. I have referred her to a dietician to crack the whip.

9. A 61 year old man with upper cervical pain yesterday; it's not severe but also not getting better of its own accord. He's afraid it may turn very acute as when I treated him three years ago. Since then it's been fine. 

10. A 64 year old woman has had scheuermanns disease; it's left her with a spinal kyphosis and chronic middorsal pain. She responds well to chiropractic treatment provides she come every six weeks or so for maintenance treatment.

11. Mrs C has been having severe headaches, and taking a lot of analgesics. It's a non complicated upper cervical facet syndrome, and she's doing well.

12. Mrs D, a middle aged woman with hip pain of one year duration, despite other treatment. Xrays reveal an impingement syndrome and early hip arthritis. There's much to be done.

13. Mr D, a 71 year old man, has a severe ache in the shoulder and midback since working above his head. Trapped nerve tests are negative but he has advanced degenerative joints of Luschka; after just two treatments he is 50 percent better. Can we reach 90?

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