Upper Back Pain

Upper Back Pain Symptoms & Treatments


When it comes to common ailments, back pain is the mother of them all. Affecting millions of people worldwide and the majority of Americans at some point in adulthood, back pain can cause discomfort, insomnia and a limited range of motion of untreated for a significant amount of time.

Because back pain can occur to anyone at any time, most adults ignore the pain and discomfort rather than admit to a chronic problem. Most people suffer from lower back pain as it has the starring role in movement, but there are plenty who suffer from upper back pain. Since the lumbar pain folks get all the press, those with pain in the upper back are often unsure what symptoms to look out for and what treatments are available.

Upper Back 101

Since most of the back pain focus is on the lower back, very few people realize the important role the upper back plays in movement and posture. In fact the upper back, including the neck and shoulders are susceptible to the same kind of pain found in the lumbar region.

Many of the joints, muscles, discs and vertebra in the upper back are attached to the sternum and ribs, meaning that any injury or ache to them, can translate into upper back pain. Keeping the muscles in your upper back strong is an essential component of back pain prevention.

Symptoms of Upper Back Pain

The good news, if indeed there is any good news about back pain, is that upper back pain tends to be far less painful than other forms of back pain thanks in part to the shoulders and neck. You may experience muscle stiffness with general back pain, but you will know that it is more than run of the mill back pain if you experience any of the following:

  • A limited range of motion when bending or twisting.
  • Dull but persistent pain in the neck, shoulders or upper back region.
  • A burning or sharp pain.
  • Numbness or tingling in the upper back, chest, stomach or arms.
  • Bowel or bladder control problems (severe symptoms that require immediate medical attention).

Most of your symptoms will be so mild that an over the counter painkiller can help, but if it persists beyond a few weeks you should seek the help of a back pain specialist. The fact that the pain is mild doesn't mean there are no risks of the problem worsening, particularly if you have no idea what caused the upper back pain in the first place.

What Causes Upper Back Pain?

Many patients who suffer from upper back pain have no idea what caused the pain if not injury or trauma, and this can be why upper back pain is so difficult to treat. The muscles in this section of the back don't flex or move as much as the neck or lumbar muscles, which limit the ways in which it can suffer injury.

If not due to a direct injury to the upper back, this pain is most often caused by muscle strain either due to a repetitive motion or overusing a particular muscle. Baseball and tennis players, as well as quarterbacks are susceptible to upper back pain due to the repetitive nature of their jobs. You don't have to be a professional athlete however because a repetitive motion like lifting or scanning items as a cashier can cause the same type of strain in the upper back muscles.

Under-utilizing muscles can cause back pain just as easily as over using them. In fact many people who don't practice a physically active lifestyle find their upper back muscles are not strong enough to support everyday motions that include lifting or twisting.

Most of us tend to carry stress and tension in our back muscles, which is why stress is one of the leading causes of general back pain. Muscle pain relief can be found in the form of massage therapy, stretching or exercise.

In some rare instances upper back pain may be caused by the cartilage breakdown in the spine, commonly known as osteoarthritis.

What You Can Do To Prevent Upper Back Pain

If you've ever suffered from any form of back pain you know that it is more than the pain; it is also the discomfort, the inactivity and the limited range of motion that makes life more difficult. By taking preventative measures to avoid upper back pain you can eliminate your suffering and say "sayonara" to back pain.

Get Moving - You need to do more than simply exercise if you want to keep upper back pain far away from you. Although exercise will help strengthen the muscles so they aren't as vulnerable to strain and injury, you should also literally get up and get moving. If you spend long periods of time sitting, get up once an hour and move around. Doing a few jumping jacks, take a walk or simply walk in place. Just stand up and let your muscles work a bit.

Chin up, shoulders squared - You may think perfect posture is just for beauty queens and politicians but we could all use a few lessons from charm school. Good posture will reduce the pressure placed on the spine and back muscles when it's contorted in a foreign position. With your chin up, shoulders squared and back straight, you will greatly reduce muscle strain in the upper back. You may not need to practice with a book on your head-it couldn't hurt, though-but a regular reminder to 'sit up straight' can go a long way to prevent upper back pain.

Take a break - Whether you are sitting at a desk all day long or performing a repetitive motion it is necessary to give your body a break. Just as your mind goes blank after a few hours of a mindless activity, so too will your back if you push it past its limit without a break. Just stop for a few minutes and let your muscles relax, so that muscle strain doesn't become a regular thing.

Get a massage - Life is stressful and it isn't likely to change anytime soon. So rather than allowing your stress to manifest as back pain, turn to a massage therapist to reduce muscle and mental strain. When combined with pain relief creams or pills, massage therapy can be as effective in prevention as it is for treatment.


If your upper back pain symptoms persist for more than ten days you need to see your physician to diagnose the source of the pain and formulate a treatment plan.

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