What causes upper back pain in females?

4 common reasons for upper back pain in women

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S.A.C. Dip (Diet, Exercise & Fitness), Advanced Human Anatomy & Physiology Level 3
Ask Louise

07 June 2021

What causes upper back pain in females?

Upper back pain in women can be caused by an ill-fitting bra, as it puts pressure on the back and can even restrict movement. Large breast size may also put a strain on the upper back muscles. Some other causes of upper back pain that are specific to women only include pregnancy and menopause.

Reasons for upper back pain in women

There are a few reasons for upper back pain that are specific only to women, so let's take a closer look at what these are and what can help.

1. Ill-fitting bra

According to a 2008 study, 80% of participants were found to be wearing the incorrect size of bra, and women with bigger breast sizes, in particular, were more likely to have an ill-fitting bra. Unfortunately, this can go on to have some serious implications for our health. (1)

A poor bra fit has been connected with issues like heartburn, for example, as well as muscle pain. You see, if the breasts are not being supported by a correctly-sized and well-fitting bra, it can lead to discomfort in other areas of the body, such as the back. It may also restrict shoulder and spine movement, thus further contributing to pain.

When a bra doesn't fit properly, it can also cause subtle changes to our posture that can develop into pain. Furthermore, exercising with an ill-fitting bra increases the likelihood of pain further still, as we need extra support when moving around a lot – this is exactly why sports bras are so important!

2. Larger breast size

A heavier breast size can put additional strain on the back particularly when, as I mentioned above, the breasts aren't given enough support through a well-fitting bra.
Hunching over can also be a problem here, as this weakens the back muscles and the breasts need the support of strong back muscles. This can turn into a bit of a vicious circle, because a bigger chest, which needs more support, puts more strain on the back muscles and encourages more hunching.

As well as back ache, neck ache and even headaches may develop when heavy breasts are not supported by strong back muscles. So, to counter this, we can focus on building up some strength in the upper back through targeted activities like Yoga.

3. Menopause

Aches and pains become increasingly more common during menopause, due to all the hormonal changes going on in the body at this time.

An increase in the stress hormone cortisol, for example, can lead to more tension in the muscles and, over time, this may develop into pain. You may also become more sensitive to pain due to high cortisol levels.

As oestrogen levels fall during menopause, it can affect how the body uses and absorbs magnesium. Since this nutrient is essential for healthy muscles, any depletion in levels can contribute to muscle pain, as well as tension and cramp.

If we add issues like large breast size and a badly fitting bra on top of these scenarios, upper back pain is even more likely to develop.

4. Pregnancy

Back pain in pregnancy is very common. This can be due to the increasing size of the foetus and the pressure this puts on the muscles and spine. Also, as the weight of the foetus pushes the whole body forwards, additional strain is put on the back.

These issues can then be exacerbated by the likes of poor posture and reduced activity levels during pregnancy.

Other causes of back pain in women

Although I have mentioned four common reasons for upper back pain that only affect women, some other more general issues can contribute to pain as well, such as:

  • Injury – issues can commonly develop during sporting activities or when lifting heavy objects.
  • Poor posture – sitting down for extended periods and staying slumped or hunched as you do so.
  • Technology use – spending long hours hunched over a phone or laptop, for example.
  • Sleeping position – having pillows that are too high or firm.

How do you relieve upper back pain?

If you are struggling with upper back pain, here are some suggestions for what to do.

Go for a bra fitting – get your breast size measured in a shop or have a look at guidelines online to make sure your bra fits properly.

Exercise – stretches and gentle movement can be a good way to ease out tension in the upper back. Try the likes of Yoga for a full-body workout – you could ask your instructor for advice on movements specifically for the upper back.

Cut down your screen time – use tactics like putting your phone out of sight or switching it to flight mode to reduce the amount of time you spend hunched over the little screen!

Change your office set up – adjust your computer screen so that it sits at eye level, use a supportive computer chair and keep your feet firmly planted on the ground to improve posture when working.

Apply Atrogel – Atrogel Arnica Gel can bring some pain relief when applied topically to the affected area.

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Ice an injury – for muscle strain in the upper back due to injury, try applying and ice pack or even some cold peas wrapped in a towel. Do this in short, regular stints.

Physiotherapy – if you aren't really sure what is causing your upper back pain, it is always a good idea to have the issue looked over by a trained professional. Physiotherapists will listen to your symptoms and draw up the most suitable treatment plan, as well as offering advice on what could be the cause of your symptoms.

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