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Decoding Latissimus Dorsi Pain

man being examined for latissimus dorsi pain


More commonly referred to as your “lats”, latissimus dorsi pain can be a very uncomfortable experience due to the large surface area this back muscle covers. While uncomfortable might be an understatement, your lats are super active in multiple upper body movements - and when it becomes injured or strained it surely can impact your overall well-being. 

With fitness in mind, most people might think yes, if you want a huge back, build your lats. Although this is true with its function being crucial to upper body movement, there’s more to it than meets the eye. So if you’re having any latissimus dorsi pain, let’s get right into it!

Latissimus Dorsi Pain: Muscle Function and Anatomy

location is important for latissimus dorsi pain


If you didn’t know already, the latissimus dorsi is a large flat muscle that spans the middle and lower back. Starting from the lower half of your spine (think lumbar and thoracic vertebrae) it reaches upwards and attaches to your humerus (upper arm bone). 

The latissimus dorsi has an important role in arm (brachial) motion and also thoracic (breathing) movement - more information about the breathing in a later portion. With its attachment to the humerus, your lats function to adduct and medially rotate the humerus. [1] You’ll see this muscle at work when it comes to activities such as climbing or doing chin-ups, for example. 

The latissimus dorsi functions in shoulder extension, adduction, internal rotation, and anything that involves lifting, pulling, and rotating your arms. Whether or not you’re an athlete, your lats are very active as you go about your daily activities. If you participate in sports such as rock climbing, rowing, or swimming your lats are likely super ripped! 

Of course, since it’s one of the largest back muscles, let’s not overlook its crucial role in core stabilization, so you could almost say it’s involved in anything upper body related. 

Possible Origins for Latissimus Dorsi Pain

In a study regarding latissimus dorsi (LD) injury, it is stated, “Injury of the LD usually occurs in the acute setting of forceful abduction and external rotation during resisted contraction, such as attempting to catch oneself during a fall on an outstretched arm or pulling the body upward and forward while the arms are overhead with fixed hand positioning.” [2] 

If an acute injury occurs some other symptoms include

  • Tearing, burning, or popping sensation in your armpit
  • Immediate weakness
  • Bruising
  • Detectable mass in the muscle [2]

Healthcare providers have been able to use ultrasonography and MRI to help diagnose this type of pain and injury. 

Types of latissimus dorsi injuries imaging can distinguish include:

  • Isolated tendon injury
  • Combination tendon injury along with other adjacent muscles (i.e. pectorals major)
  • Isolated myotendinous strain
  • Intramuscular strain [2]

With this in mind, treatment for LD injury tends to be conservative while some severe cases have been treated with surgery. 

Other causes for latissimus dorsi pain include:

  • Muscle tightness
  • Overuse or strain (most common)
    • Sports that require repetition and significant use of back muscles (i.e. rowing, swimming, or tennis)
  • Poor body mechanics (bad posture)

For more detail on latissimus dorsi pain caused by strain check out our page on lat muscle strain!

Latissimus Dorsi Pain When Breathing

As stated by authors Jeno and Varacallo, “The muscle’s primary function is to move the upper extremity, but it is also considered an accessory muscle of respiration.” Because of its attachment to the lower 3-4 ribs, your lats are at work when it comes to deep breathing or forceful exhaling - other examples include sneezing and coughing. [1] 

While your lats are not the primary muscles responsible for helping you breathe, they can become more active in the process if there is any respiratory distress - which would require more effort and the participation of other accessory muscles (within the chest, neck, and back). 

If you have any strain, injury, or muscle tightness in your lats, odds are that when you take a deep breath, cough, or sneeze, you’ll be feeling the pain. On other occasions, it is possible to have referred latissimus dorsi pain if there is a condition affecting the spine, ribs, or surrounding structures - which can also affect deep breathing. 

Latissimus Dorsi Pain Management

Latissimus dorsi pain management has no well-defined path to healing. Just like most pain interventions involving muscle injury, you can try the following:

  • Rest 
  • Modified activity
  • Ice and heat therapy (to relax the muscle and improve circulation)
  • Stretching 
  • Gentle exercises
  • Massage
  • Foam rolling
  • Pain relief medications (such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen)
  • Keep body mechanics in mind (proper posture)
  • Consult a healthcare provider

As noted earlier, some severe cases have required operation, however, because every case is unique, conservative pain management is the most taken route. Additionally, surgery results have been inconclusive, and muscle function is not guaranteed to return to pre-injury levels. 

Stretches for Latissimus Dorsi Pain 

Here are a few stretches you can try (if tolerated) for a more flexible latissimus dorsi!

Standing Overhead Lat Stretch

  1. Stand upright with feet shoulder-width apart
  2. Interlock your fingers with arms raised overhead
  3. Stretch upwards reaching towards the ceiling with palms facing upward
  4. Lean to one side
  5. Hold for 15-30 seconds - longer if you can!
  6. Repeat on the other side
overhead stretch important for latissimus dorsi pain


Child’s Pose Lat Stretch

  1. Start in a kneeling position on all fours (hands under shoulders and knees under hips
  2. Lower your hips lowering your buttocks towards your heels while extending your arms forward on the ground.
  3. Stretch your arms straight further away and let your chest sink down towards the ground
  4. Remember to breathe into your stretch!
  5. Hold for 15-30 seconds 
child's pose is great for latissimus dorsi pain

Massage for Latissimus Dorsi Pain

A good massage will help with circulation and relaxation in your muscles - therefore it can help with pain as well. If you have trigger points in your lats, you’ll need a deep tissue massage or better yet, the QL Claw to help you release those trigger points! 

While it may take some investigation and persistence to find the correct trigger point, our page on trigger point therapy may help shed some light on the issue. Also, more information can be found about the QL Claw - the unmatched massage tool for back muscle.

Latissimus Dorsi Pain: the Best Sleeping Position

A common go-to position for back pain is (quite surprisingly) sleeping on your back. Doing so with a pillow under your knees to relieve any pressure while keeping your spine aligned will also help. 

You can also try sleeping on your side with a pillow between your knees for added support. Lastly, another other popular sleeping position to try is the fetal position. Doing so will keep any added pressure off your back, however, having a good quality mattress and pillow will also make a difference here.

Personally, I have upgraded from a regular spring mattress (after experiencing lower back pain that was affecting my sleep) to a Tempur-pedic mattress. Yes, they are up there in price range but if you’re having any back issues, I’d say it’s an investment worth making. But don’t take my word for it! There’s plenty of research to be done and multiple companies that provide good-quality mattresses (and pillows) for people with back pain! 

Latissimus Dorsi Pain: Conclusion

If you’re able to get through the initial episode of pain and have a successful recovery, remember to continue to incorporate stretching and strengthening to prevent future injury. The key to prevention is also not to overdo it in your activities or training - and that means in both repetition and intensity. 

Prioritizing holistic methods to musculoskeletal health is key, whether you’re using a massage tool (*ahem* QL Claw) or simply making sure to balance rest, proper body mechanics, and fitness - listen to your body, and let’s aim for a pain-free lifestyle!


[1] Jeno, S. Varacallo, M. Anatomy, back, latissimus dorsi. StatPearls, 2023.

[2] Friedman, M., Stensby, J., Hillen, T., Demertzis, J., Keener J. Traumatic tear of the latissimus dorsi myotendinous junction. Sports Health, 2015.

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