Upper Back Pain Causes and Treatments

What is Upper Back Pain


Upper back pain is pain that is felt between the bottom of the neck and top of the lumbar spine. The upper back and neck section is a very complex part of our body because there are many joints and muscles working together.

While lower back pain affects our ability to walk and move about, upper back pain affects our ability to carry out simple daily activities like combing our hair or riding a bicycle.

Upper back pain is not as common as lower back pain, which is the most frequent excuse for absenteeism from work. This is because the upper back does not move as much as the spine in the lower back.

To understand how the upper back behaves, you need to have an idea of how it is structured in the spine.


Upper Back Pain

Upper Back Pain

Upper Back Structure

The anatomy of the upper body consists of the torso, arms and back.  The torso which is basically the thoracic spine is made up of twelve vertebrae. The upper nine vertebrae are connected to corresponding ribs on both sides at every level and attaches to the breastbone in front. This forms the thoracic cage that provides structural protection for the internal organs of the heart, lungs and liver. This also offers space for the lungs to expand and contract but has limited motion in the spine. The lower three ribs do not join together at the front but still offer some protection to the vital organs, and allow slightly more motion in the spine. Viewing from the side, this part of the spine is a bit concave.

Since there is a lot of stability and little motion at the upper back (thoracic spine), there is less spinal disorder along this section of the spine.

Structure of spinal column

Structure of spinal column

The arms contain muscles such as the triceps brachii, biceps brachii and deltoid.

The back contains muscles such as the rhomboids, rotator cuff and lattisimus dorsi.


Upper Back Pain Symptoms

Upper back pain may last for a short duration, or it may last for more than three months, which is considered as chronic.

The pain may be dull and throbbing, sharp and piercing, local or radiating. The pain may be constant, or only during certain activities, like lifting heavy things or after sitting for a long time. You may feel weakness and pain in your arms, and stiffness of your upper body.

 Upper back pain may occur in conjunction with other underlying medical conditions.

Symptoms of upper back pain include:

  •  Fever
  • Headache
  • Neck pain
  • Shoulder pain
  • Stiffness of the back
  • Swelling or redness of the back
  • Fatigue
  • Stress
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

Some people suffering from back pain may also have other medical conditions with the following symptoms:

  • Chest Pain
  • Abdominal pain
  • Jaw pain
  • Breathing difficulty
  • Sweating
  • Nausea

These symptoms may be life threatening and they should seek emergency treatment.


Upper Back Pain Causes

Upper back pain can be caused by trauma, sudden injury, strain and poor posture over time. People who work long hours in front of computers or stretching their upper body at an awkward angle is prone to this problem. As their joints and muscles become exhausted their spines are misaligned creating imbalances.

People who stretch and swing their upper body frequently during sport activities may also develop upper back pain.

Upper back pain can also be caused by more serious medical conditions, such as:

  •  fibromyalgia( a chronic pain in muscles and soft tissues surrounding the joints throughout the body, accompanied by fatigue)
  • spondylitis (infection or inflammation of the spinal joints)
  • spinal disc herniation (slipped disc)
  • Osteoporosis (metabolic bone disease)
  • Spinal stenosis (a narrowing of the spinal canal that presses on the spinal cord or nerves)

 Upper Back Pain Risk Factors

If you belong to any of the categories listed below, then you are at risk of getting upper back pain:

  •  Congenital (present at birth)
  • Family history of back pain or spine disease
  • Obesity
  • Increasing age
  • Poor posture
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Smoking
  • Stress and anxiety


Upper Back Pain Prevention and Treatment

Most treatments for upper back pain are focused on relieving the pain and do not address the underlying cause, which is normally the spinal imbalances. Unless you address the muscle and joint imbalances, pain relief is only temporary.

Upper back pain can be treated by one or a combination of the following:

  •  Ice and/or heat therapy
  • Deep massage or massage therapy
  • Joint manipulation,  performed by chiropractors, physiotherapists, or osteopathic physicians
  • Acupuncture
  • Exercise/Active and passive physical therapy
  • Analgesics such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
  • Short rest on bed

Unless the severity of you upper back pain warrants it, surgery should always be your last option.

19 Responses to Upper Back Pain Causes and Treatments

  1. Joanne kelly says:

    My mam has been diagnosed with myofascial pain….a stabbing pain in her upper back, would your programme be of benefit to her

    • Jack Woo says:

      Without a proper diagnosis and understanding the underlying problem it is difficult to provide any meaningful advice.
      Some of the physical therapies such as massage may offer some relief, but it is best to consult a specialist doctor first.

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  3. Daphne Bacos says:

    I tore a rotator cuff and the pain is very uncomfortable. I also deal with myofascial pain, and a cervical sprain oh and I can’t. Forget tendinitis. Do you reccomend surgery?

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  5. For about one month, off and on, gradually getting worse everyday, I have had upper back pain. A sharp, radiating pain. It hurts when I move, stretch, breathe or bend. I cant lay down in bed without it hurting. I have to catch my breath when i turn or sit or lay and cease movement for a minute because of the pain. It almost feels like there is a big bubble of air in there trapped. Im taking vicodan and percocet for pain, however, when it wears off the pain is back. What is this. I havent had any accidents or picked up anything?

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  8. Noudy naude says:

    had a backpain for 5 months an acute upper backpain sometimes i feel weak on my shouldas and pain in my chest..anyone who knows a cure please help.

  9. Natasha Inkamiye says:

    I have upper back painful constantly. I cannot move, the pain is always, now 3 years with this painful. and the pain from my upper back hurt my chest badly. there is no way to sleep, no way to do any thing.
    X-ray and MRI cannot see any thing wrong. I tried all kinds pain killer and Anti-inflammatory medicine nothing to stop pain.
    any idea ? any suggestion please help ?
    please help me to know this medical condition I have.

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