What Is Upper Back Pain?

Are you suffering from pain in your upper back? Upper back pain is any type of pain that stretches from the middle of your back, up through and across your shoulders. Upper back pain can be caused by:

  • Fracture in one of the vertebrae
  • Sports or overuse injuries
  • Poor posture or ergonomic set-up during work
  • Neck or shoulder strain
  • Arthritis, especially osteoarthritis
  • Spinal disorders, like scoliosis or kyphosis
  • Herniated discs
  • Degenerative disc disease
  • Spinal stenosis
  • Osteopenia
  • Osteoporosis
  • Cancer or infection, in severe cases

With so much focus on lower back pain, people with pain in their upper backs can be left without the help they need. In this post, we give information about what causes pain in your upper back and what treatments can help.

Video: What Causes Upper Back Pain?

The upper back is also known as the thoracic region. It spans from the neck to the lower back. The vertebrae that make up the upper thoracic spine are connected to the ribs and muscles of the back. This thoracic back pain is a source of discomfort for many. While it is not as common as neck or lower back pain, it can still result in severe pain. It can also have a negative impact on an individual’s life. This video talks about some of its causes.

Why Does My Upper Back Hurt So Much?

The most common causes of upper back pain occur from:

  • Accidents
  • Sports injuries, both recent and old ones that haven’t healed correctly
  • Poor posture
  • Overuse, at work or during exercise

When damage occurs to the muscles in the upper back, the immune system releases inflammatory molecules that lead to pain. Accidents or injuries can lead to pain that resolves with rest. But sometimes, this pain becomes worse. If you’re experiencing pain for three months or more, it could be considered chronic pain.

Upper Back Pain | PainDoctor.com

Stress and poor posture

Consider your daily desk set-up. When you’re physically or emotionally stressed, you often sit with your whole body slumped forward. Your chin juts out. Your shoulders likely creep up towards your ears. And, your head inches forward, putting pounds of pressure on your upper back and shoulders.

This classic office posture offers little support for our muscles. And, it can lead to long-term pain and discomfort. When we finally do get back into alignment, our backs may feel sore or tired as our muscles re-learn their job. With enough time, it could significantly damage the muscles and vertebrae in the upper back.

Other habits that can lead to stress in the upper back include:

  • Poor ergonomic set-ups at work that lead to ongoing neck and shoulder strain
  • Lack of exercise
  • Improper lifting techniques
  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Carrying bags that are too heavy
  • Weak core (abdominal) muscles


Upper back pain may also be caused by medical conditions like arthritis. Arthritis is an inflammatory condition in our joints. It can lead to chronic pain and stiffness. Arthritis can cause structural damage to the facet joints of the thoracic vertebrae in the upper back or the ribs.

The most common type of arthritis is osteoarthritis. The effects of daily living and wear-and-tear on the body can lead to inflammation in our joints.

Spinal disorders

Spinal disorders, like scoliosis or kyphosis, put unnatural strain on the vertebrae of the back. This can lead to pain that worsens over time as the condition progresses. If you suffer from spinal disorders, it’s important to work closely with your doctor. They can suggest braces, therapies, or surgeries that can help.

Herniated discs 

Intervertebral disc bulging or herniation may also cause chronic upper back pain.

Intervertebral discs are rings of tissue that are found between each vertebra in your spine. They act as shock absorbers and provide support for the spine. These intervertebral discs consist of a spongy inner layer and a tough outer layer. When there is deterioration of the outer layer, the inner layer can protrude outwards. This causes irritation and inflammation of the nearby spinal nerves. And, this can result in chronic upper back pain.

Degenerative disc disease

Degenerative disc disease refers to damage that occurs in the intervertebral discs due to aging. This condition can be associated with a wide variety of specific pain symptoms. Patients may experience:

  • A localized stabbing pain
  • General and widespread pain
  • A lack of feeling
  • Prickly sensations
  • Pain that extends into the extremities

The following video gives information about this condition.


Spinal stenosis

Some people suffer from spinal stenosis. With this condition, the spinal canal itself narrows. This happens from age-related wear-and-tear, especially if you work in a physical job. The symptoms of this condition are pretty obvious. You’ll feel pain in the neck and back, especially when you stand straight. It’s often relieved when you bend over. Other more serious symptoms include:

  • Numbness
  • Muscle weakness
  • Impaired bladder or bowel control

Other causes 

Small fractures to the thoracic spine bones can also lead to chronic pain. These fractures can be associated with degenerative bone conditions, including osteopenia and osteoporosis.

Finally, while it’s relatively rare, certain cancers or infections that affect the thoracic cavity or thoracic spine may also lead to chronic upper back pain.

If you’re experiencing any numbness in your arms, legs, or chest, or loss of bowel control, it could be a sign of a serious problem. Likewise, if you suffer from a lung condition. Always talk to a doctor immediately if you’re experiencing these symptoms.

How Can I Stop My Upper Back Pain?

Your first step should be to talk to your doctor about lifestyle interventions. At-home treatments for upper back pain include:

  • Losing weight
  • Eating an anti-inflammatory diet
  • Incorporating exercise into your daily routine
  • Adjusting your office set-up to support a more