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April 11, 2021  
BACK NEWS: Feature Story

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  • Pain in the Arm = Problem with Back

    Pain in the Arm = Problem with Back


    October 05, 2006

    By: Jean Johnson for Back1

    Compromised posture is a polite way of describing what can happen to people who don’t stand up straight. As they age, their shoulders start to round and before they know it their back muscles have atrophied and they’ve become stooped over. I didn’t realize I was headed that way until my arm started hurting.

    I spent the summer writing out on the deck. After a winter’s hibernation in my office with a Pacific Northwest drizzle sleeting down the window glass, I took the laptop outside. It was great. We had a beautiful summer here in Portland, Oregon. Bumble bees did their thing in the lavender, and the monarchs flashed bright yellow on black over in the butterfly bush. What I didn’t pay attention to was my posture. That is, until I developed arm pains. Indeed, I never suspected that it was my back rather than my arm that was feeling neglected.

    Pain That Manifested in the Arm

    At first it was an ache in my forearm, a deep muscle pain that came day after day and couldn’t be massaged away. Then there was a sort of pain or tingling type of nonsense in my fingers.

    Of course, carpal tunnel syndrome was my first thought and so I started doing various exercises designed to stretch the wrist and forearms. I also made sure my elbow was at a 90-degree angle when typing, and that I wasn’t resting my wrists on the wrist pad. But nothing really helped.

    As the days and weeks went by, I started to feel it up in my bicep and shoulder area. My whole upper arm was simply sore. It really hurt, especially when I raised it up over my head.

    I kept up with my half hour of yoga every other day and gave special attention to the injured limb. And I went to the gym for my usual strength training and cardio workouts. I even took extra time and got into the pool afterwards to do the backstroke and anything else I could dream up to work the area in question. I did the same in the hot tub and sauna.

    But, nothing helped. The arm just stayed sore, and I even started to have radiating pain that seemed to run its whole length, ending up in my ring finger and pinky. I eventually resorted to completely resting the arm and switched over to my left hand for as many tasks as I could – watering the garden, opening doors, and even eating.

    Finally I took a break from writing for a few days and fiddled around in the garden. Things might have eased some, but not that much. So in the desperation a writer who is dependent on her hands can have, I called the physical therapist for an appointment. Within a few days in I went with my fears about possible carpal tunnel or other arm problems that could lead to an earlier retirement than planned.

    Physical Therapist Assessment

    The young woman who worked on me barely looked old enough to have gone through college, but she assured me with much youthful enthusiasm that she’d been on the job for two whole years. With all the aplomb of a true professional, she listened to my description of the problem and asked me about my work habits.

    Then came the table: I was face-up first and then flipped over onto my stomach, while she expertly tested my joints for range of motion. No carpal tunnel, thank heavens. No comment on anything else except that I was in pretty good shape. That is until she got to my back.

    Then it was, “this area here across the middle is very tight. That’s the most significant finding we have with you so far. It’s extremely tight.”

    My middle back? The place that never gives me any trouble at all? If she had said my lower back, I would have nodded, since I’ve long had to do my share of Cat-Cow yoga stretches to keep that limber. But my lower back was fine. She was certain that it was the middle area.

    She went to work, pressing and rocking first on one side of my spine and then on the other. Then she worked lengthwise. It felt great, I admit. “There, that seems loosened up a little bit, at least for now.”

    My comment, of course, was how could it be my back when nothing at all hurt there and it was my arm that was so obviously sore. If you’re thinking the nervous system, you’re correct. She explained that pain radiating up and down the arm as mine seemed to be is often nerve related, and that the tight muscles in the strip across my back could be impinging on a nerve enough to create the havoc.
    Take Action
    The tips below on good standing and sitting posture are adapted from the Cleveland Clinic literature on ‘Posture for a Healthy Back’

    Correct standing position

  • Hold your head up straight with your chin in. Do not tilt your head forward, backward or sideways.
  • Keep your shoulder blades back.
  • Tuck your stomach in. Do not tilt your pelvis forward or backward.
  • Avoid standing in the same position for a long time.

    Correct sitting position

  • Sit up with your back straight and your shoulders back. Your buttocks should touch the back of your chair.
  • Keep your feet flat on the floor.
  • Try to avoid sitting in the same position for more than 30 minutes.
  • At work, adjust your chair height and work station so you can sit up close to your work and tilt it up at you. Rest your elbows and arms on your chair or desk, keeping your shoulders relaxed.
  • When standing up from the sitting position, move to the front of the seat of your chair. Stand up by straightening your legs. Avoid bending forward at your waist. Immediately stretch your back by doing 10 standing backbends.


  • Take Home Exercises

    It was after she showed me the exercises she wanted me to do and explained the changes she wanted me to make when I was working at the computer that she told me I needed to not only sit up straight, but also stand tall.

    There were only two exercises. In the first one you stand close to the wall with your elbows bent. Your arms are supposed to be out to the side with your elbows closer to the body than your hands. Next, you slide your hands overhead in a slight ‘V,’ all the while keeping your shoulders relaxed, your pelvis tucked under, and your abdominal muscles tight. Then you’re ready for the press. When the arms are as straight as possible you lift your hands off the wall by squeezing the shoulder blades together and down, and hold for two seconds with 15 repetitions and two sets daily.

    The other exercise is simple. While sitting upright with proper posture, face a mirror and tuck the chin in and pull the head straight back without tipping it to either side. Hold for two seconds just like the shoulder blade squeeze, but do three sets of 10 each day.

    In sum, she has me working like a beaver to counteract a head that was starting to hang low and shoulders that were starting to slump over my increasingly burdened spinal column.

    She must have known that once I started the exercises, I’d feel the heat in my back. So she also suggested lying down on a rolled up towel the length of my spine to at least temporarily relieve what for a while felt like spasms. At any rate, while stretched out on the towel – or tennis balls if you prefer –raise your arms to help the front of the shoulders stretch out and the middle of the back extend properly.

    Computer Posture

    The physical therapist also gave me a sheet explaining proper computer posture. In particular, she said I was straining my back by continually looking down and to the left side at my notes and then back to the computer screen. She also noted that the problem with laptops is that we tend to bend our head forward to look down at them instead of keeping the head erect and using the eyes to look in various directions.

    Now I see why secretaries have those arms that hang off their computer monitors to hold papers on which they are working. What I did in lieu of that was to dig up an old clipboard my brother left the last time he visited. I stand that up by my screen on the right side to hold whatever notes I need to see.

    It’s not a perfect world, of course. I haven’t been the greatest on my exercises and my arm still hurts a little. Also, it’s starting to be a gorgeous Indian summer here in Portland, and I still like to use the laptop out on the deck. When I do that, though, I put my notes on the right side of my lounge chair and try to remember to keep my shoulders back and my chin up. Indeed, isn’t that what our grandmothers have been telling us all along?

    Last updated: 05-Oct-06

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