Upper back pain may not receive the same amount of attention as lower back pain, but it’s not something you should ignore either. No kind of pain is normal, and all pain should be taken seriously. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to help ease upper back pain, regardless of its cause. In this article, we’ll look at nine upper back pain causes, as well as some treatment options that could help you find relief.
What is upper back pain?
This might seem like an obvious question with an obvious answer: upper back pain is pain that you feel in your upper back. But what is the upper back, medically speaking?
Also called the thoracic region, your upper back is defined as the area from the base of your neck to the middle of your back (approximately five inches below your shoulder blades). Unlike other kinds of back pain, upper back pain manifests between, just above, or just below the shoulder blades. If you’re experiencing pain in this region, then it would be classified as upper back pain.
Before you decide on a potential treatment, you may want to figure out what is causing your pain. You may not need to know the exact cause of your upper back pain to treat it effectively, but it’s important to rule out rarer, potentially life-threatening upper back pain causes, like cancer or infections.
What’s causing my upper back pain? 9 potential causes
Upper back pain can be caused by a variety of factors. Some are more serious, but others are fairly common problems with simple solutions.
You’ve probably heard by now that people in the U.S. spend far too much time sitting down. This is often compounded by what people do as they sit.
Usually, sitting also means hunching or leaning forward to look at something, like a computer screen. This puts a great deal of strain on the neck and upper back, which can lead to upper back pain.
The CDC reports that 54.4 million adults in the U.S. have been diagnosed with arthritis, an inflammation of the joints. There are over 100 different types of arthritis. Among the most common are osteoporosis, fibromyalgia, and rheumatoid arthritis.
Arthritis pain can affect many joints across your body, including the vertebrae in your upper back, in different ways. The symptoms most often associated with arthritis are joint and joint stiffness, although the severity of these symptoms often depends on what type of arthritis you have.
Further, osteoporosis can cause new bone to grow on top of existing bone. These are called bone spurs and can be very painful.
Your psychological health and physical health are closely linked. In other words, psychological or emotional distress can lead to physical distress.
If you suffer from prolonged stress, or if you struggle with a mental illness like depression, you are more likely to develop back pain. And having to deal with chronic pain can, in turn, increase your stress levels or worsen symptoms of your mental illness.
Both exercising the wrong way and not exercising enough can lead to upper back pain.
If you experience a brief day of achy soreness after a workout, there’s probably nothing to worry about. You can take an over-the-counter pain reliever if necessary, but the pain should go away on its own. If you experience sharp, sudden, or severe pain that doesn’t go away after exercising, it could mean you’ve injured yourself. Talk to your doctor as soon as possible for help.
On the other hand, if you don’t get enough exercise, your upper back muscles may weaken to the point where they can’t effectively support you anymore. This in turn can also lead to upper back pain.
Pregnancy can be very hard on your body.
While swollen ankles and lower back pain get most of the attention when it comes to pregnancy-related aches and pains, upper back pain is also common. Talk to your doctor about non-invasive therapies that could help you ease pain during this time.
Your spinal column is made up of many small bones called vertebrae. Most adults have 33 of them. Normally, each bone is separated from the others by soft tissue matter, called discs. But if one of your vertebrae fractures or cracks, the bone can collapse into the soft tissue, leading to a vertebral compression fracture.
This kind of fracture usually causes acute pain and can be brought on by a variety of conditions, including osteoporosis, accidents, and (occasionally) cancer.
Kyphosis is the medical term for when your spine curves outward, creating a hump or bump in your back.
Obviously, this puts extra stress on your spine and can lead to back issues, including upper back pain.
This is, like kyphosis, an irregular curvature of the spine. Scoliosis causes the spine to curve to the side in an S or C shape. Again, the unnatural shape of the spinal column can be painful.
The worse your scoliosis is—in other words, the more out of alignment your spine is—the more likely you are to develop symptoms that affect your everyday activities.
Chronic myofascial pain
Chronic myofascial pain occurs when the fascia, or the connective tissues between your muscles, suddenly starts causing you pain. This lasts much longer than pain brought on by a pulled muscle, and it can happen just about anywhere you have muscles, including the upper back.
If you have recently injured or otherwise traumatized your upper back, you may be at greater risk for developing chronic myofascial pain.
How is upper back pain diagnosed?
The conditions listed above are only some of the most common upper back pain causes. While there’s a good chance your upper back pain stems from one of these conditions, it is still a good idea to contact your physician right away if you’re experiencing persistent upper back pain. Only a medical professional can diagnose you with a medical condition. They can also rule out that something more serious isn’t causing your upper back pain.
During your appointment, your doctor will run tests to start eliminating potential back pain causes. These tests may include:
- A physical examination
- Magnetic resonance imaging tests (MRI)
- Computed tomography imaging tests (CT)
- A thorough review of your medical history
- Blood tests
When your doctor diagnoses you with a specific back ailment, they will recommend treatments that could help you relieve your pain and other symptoms.
What are common upper back pain treatments?
Following your diagnosis, your doctor will help you decide on one or more treatment options.
Treatment for upper back pain comes in a variety of forms. You can try some of them at home by yourself, while others require an in-office setting.
This is an extremely basic treatment, but given how slumping or slouching causes so many cases of upper back pain, it can be very effective.
Get into the habit of standing and sitting up straight, and of regularly checking your posture to make sure you haven’t reverted to a hunched position. There are also electronic devices out now that monitor your posture throughout the day and vibrate to alert you when yours has slackened. Talk to your doctor about which ones could work for you.
Change your exercise routine
Exercise can prevent and reduce pain by making your upper back muscles strong enough to support your body and its daily movements.
There are multiple exercises you can try to strengthen your upper back, however if you aren’t used to doing a lot of exercise, you’ll want to start slow. Healthline recommends several stretches to relieve upper back pain. Yoga may also work for you. Whatever region of your back is bothering you, there are yoga poses designed to target it.
Hot and cold therapy
Applying hot and/or cold packs to an achy upper back is both cheap and effective. But which one should you use for your upper back pain? Is there even a difference?
The Cleveland Clinic has created an infographic that shows which temperature extreme will work best for what ails you. For example, if arthritis is causing your upper back pain, heat is better than cold. On the other hand, if you’ve mildly pulled a muscle, a combination of cold and heat will serve you better.
There are many ways to use heat and cold therapy on your aching back, including wraps, showers, or just a bag of frozen vegetables wrapped in a towel. Most methods are quite simple, but you still have to be careful about implementing them.
Not following the product instructions, or applying too much heat or ice for too long, can cause burns. The last thing you need on top of upper back pain is an upper back burn! Talk to your doctor about the most appropriate approach for your condition.
The term may sound a bit scary, but all it really means is adopting a healthier lifestyle. This may include switching to a healthier diet and learning how to move your body so that you don’t stress your upper back so much.
For instance, you might learn how to lift heavy objects in a way that places the least amount of pressure on your upper back. You may also talk to your manager about bringing in ergonomic office chairs, keyboards, and monitor stands to reducing hunching during the day.
For more severe cases, it may mean visiting a physical therapist. They can help you learn better movement patterns while also showing you how to stretch and strengthen the muscles of your upper back.
There are several different kinds of medication that can fight back pain. For many people, over-the-counter medicines, like aspirin or ibuprofen, can ease back pain enough to allow them to go about their day.
If over-the-counter medication isn’t working for you, your doctor might prescribe something stronger. Steroids and certain antidepressants both may help alleviate persistent back pain.
Massage therapy has become increasingly popular in the past few years. While massage can certainly be effective, there are many types of massage, each of which uses different techniques and produces different results.
Before you make an appointment with the first massage therapist you can find, research some massage types to determine which one best fits your needs. Take special care if you are pregnant as some types of massage are not safe during pregnancy.
Physical therapy or chiropractic care
As noted, a trained physical therapist uses a combination of different pain relief methods to provide long-term pain relief. Your physical therapist will also teach you about exercises and lifestyle changes that you can practice even after you stop seeing them regularly.
A chiropractor can also help relieve back pain through manual therapies that manipulate the joints of the upper back.
Epidural steroid injections
Steroid injections are sometimes used when back pain is caused by inflammation or swelling, as is the case with arthritis. Steroids reduce swelling, thereby reducing pain caused by pressure on your nerves.
But use caution as they can come with significant side effects, especially when used often or for long periods of time. Prolonged steroid use can lead to high blood pressure, sleeping problems, and even, ironically, arthritis.
Instead, incorporate epidural steroid injections into your treatment approach while also using complementary therapies. For example, epidural steroid injections may relieve your pain enough that you can undergo physical therapy that addresses the underlying causes of your pain.
Your first reaction to the word “surgery” is probably a combination of fear, dismay, and even resistance. That’s a perfectly healthy response! You shouldn’t want to rush into something as drastic as surgery, and you probably won’t need to. The overwhelming majority of upper back pain cases do not require surgery. In fact, the Mayo Clinic recommends considering back surgery only as a very last resort.
That being said, if you have exhausted the other treatment options listed above and are still experiencing debilitating upper back pain, surgery may be necessary. The odds of your needing surgery depend on what’s causing your upper back pain, as well. Kyphosis or a compression fracture is much more likely to require surgery than a simple case of poor posture or overstress. A doctor or specialist will decide if surgery is the right choice for you. Feel free to ask them any questions about the procedure and aftercare.
By researching potential causes of and solutions for upper back pain, you’re off to a great start! If you’re still unsure of how to proceed and want an expert opinion, click below to get in touch with a pain doctor in your area. They will help design a treatment regimen just for you.