The fact that shoulder and upper back ache during exercise isn't unusual doesn't make it any less irritating. A number of musculoskeletal issues can be the cause of this and, fortunately, most have fairly straightforward solutions. Most likely, the pain is revealing an underlying condition that's exacerbated by movement. Here's a rundown of some of the more likely scenarios and what you can do about them.
If you've got a desk job, spend a lot of time at a computer screen or commute far distances behind the wheel, it's likely that certain muscles have tightened up or shortened. One possible suspect is the pectoralis minor, which is as its name suggests is the smaller pec muscle that lies beneath the pec major. When it's crimped up, it can cause a range of painful symptoms and even shortness of breath. If your shoulders are rounded forward, it's a good sign that your pec minors need some TLC with chest stretches.
Tight trapezius muscles are another possible cause of exercise-induced shoulder and upper back ache. Traps are the big muscles located behind the neck and shoulders, extending down to the middle of the back; they support the arms and move the shoulder blades. Tight traps will put the hurt on shoulders and arms, and can also cause mischief lower down in the spine. A feel-good exercise for this is the tennis ball treatment -- just lie on your back and place a tennis ball under your shoulder blades, then roll around on the floor like you mean it. Or try these stretches for tight trapezius muscles.
Read More: Exercises for an Upper Back Knot
Thoracic Outlet Syndrome
Thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS) is a condition involving compression of the nerves, arteries and veins in the lower region of the neck and upper area of the chest. It can cause pain in the arms, shoulders and neck that is likely to be triggered by lifting.
TOS can be difficult to diagnose because it often mimics the symptoms of a number of other conditions. It has numerous causes, including injury, poor posture and repetitive movements such as lifting heavy objects overhead. Possible treatments include non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs such as naproxen or ibuprofen, anti-blood clotting medications, physical therapy and even surgery to relieve compression of the artery or nerve.
Degenerative Disk Disease
Between the vertebrae of the upper and lower spine are disks that serve as cushions between the vertebrae. Most people experience some degeneration of the disks as they age, but sometimes a disk can deteriorate seriously enough to impinge on the spinal canal, irritating the nerves and causing pain, numbness or tingling -- symptoms that are likely to be aggravated by exercise.
If the problem disk is in the cervical spine, it could cause generalized pain and achy sensations in the upper back and shoulders. Degenerative disk disease is sometimes a cause for surgery, but stretching and strengthening the neck muscles with exercise or yoga can do a lot to relieve symptoms. In any case, if you think you have a disk problem, it's a good idea to consult your physician.
Read More: Exercises for Shoulder Pain Relief