Back pain and your arms

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lower back pain

If you’re reading this, you likely have back pain. Or maybe neck pain, or general stiffness. This post is relevant to all these problems – and to lots of others, too, and looks at one of the ways in which back pain and your arms are closely linked.

What we do with our arms has a massive impact on our back, shoulders, and neck. And it’s not only what we do, but also how we do it. It’s pretty clear that weightlifting puts a lot of strain on many parts of the body, and so as an activity might create problems. But it’s also true that doing something apparently easy – like brushing your teeth or peeling a banana – is often done in ways that involve a lot more arm effort than they need to, often without your realising it.  And that can exacerbate, or even be the source of, your back pain.

So, how is it that back pain and your arms influence each other?

The arms aren’t just attached to our body at the shoulder, with their own separate muscle system. They are part of our whole structure, and both influence, and are influenced by, the rest of us.  For example, there is a very large muscle (the ‘latissimus dorsi’) that attaches to your spine along its length from near its base right up to about a quarter of the way up your ribcage. From there, it spreads up and across your backlatissimus dorsi, and narrows into an attachment to the front of the top of your upper arm. So every time your arm rotates inwards (i.e. your right hand turns anticlockwise, or your left hand clockwise), this muscle is contracting – the distance between the front of your arm and your spine is reducing. And every time you turn your arm in the other direction, the latissimus dorsi has to get longer.

And this is only one of the many muscles with connections to both the substance of your back and to the arms, and in some cases the head, neck, ribs, and even the pelvis.

Why does this matter? Because how you manage your arms will have a huge impact on the state of your back, and so on your back pain…

Exploring the relationship between back pain and your arms

You can explore this when you are lying down in ‘active inactivity’. [You can read about this in Freedom from Pain, available for download elsewhere on this page.] While lying down, try experimenting with raising your forearm so that it is pointing straight at the ceiling, and its whole weight is balancing nicely on your elbow. In this position, there is no muscular effort needed in your forearm, and none in your upper arm, or in your armpit, or elsewhere in your shoulder. One arm at a time, see if you can invite some more softness into your upper arm and into your armpit, as you gradually reduce the unnecessary effort that is almost certainly going on in there. Remember that connection from the front of your arm just below your armpit, down and across your back to the lower half of your spine.  Think of the possibility of your arms rolling outwards, and of your lower back letting go so that that is a realistic possibility.

Notice what changes you can sense as you do this. And later on, see if you can maintain an awareness of what unnecessary lower back and arm work you are doing as you do whatever you do – brush your teeth, work at a keyboard, write, cook, shop, eat, to name the first few that come to mind. And if you can do any of those things while letting that lower back to upper arm relationship expand, and with less effort in and around your shoulder than you started with, that’s even better!

Let me know how you get on with this.  There’s plenty more to explore around arms, back, and neck, so check back again soon for something to expand your explorations!

Note: back pain image above courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at

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