Is Upper Back Pain Holding You Back? Learn Ways to Find Relief

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a man suffering from upper back pain

Your upper back is a complex structure designed for strength, flexibility, and support—when it hurts, your whole life feels off balance. That nagging feeling makes it hard to work, exercise, and simply enjoy life.

Don’t subject yourself to such needless suffering! Let’s bring your body back into alignment by understanding what causes and relieves upper back pain.

What Exactly is Upper Back Pain?

Upper back pain refers to any pain felt in the thoracic spine or upper back area. This includes the network of muscles, bones, joints, tendons, and ligaments that make up your upper back, starting from the base of your neck down to your rib cage.

While lower back pain is more common, upper back pain can be just as problematic. The upper back (also called the thoracic spine) provides support for the neck, shoulders, and arms.

It also connects and supports the ribs and encases vital organs like the heart and lungs. Any issues with this important part of the body can cause debilitating pain and affect your daily function.

The Roots of Upper Back Pain

There are many potential causes of upper back pain, including:

Muscle Strain

Muscle tightness or repetitive strain especially in the rhomboids between the shoulder blades can lead to spasms and upper back pain. Poor posture over time puts strain on the upper back muscles.


Sports injuries, car accidents, or trauma from a fall can injure the muscles, joints, bones, and discs of the upper back. Even heavy lifting done improperly can cause painful muscle pulls.

Spinal Conditions

Issues with the vertebrae, discs, nerves, or alignment of the upper spine like scoliosis, arthritis, bone spurs, or a pinched nerve can all cause upper back pain symptoms.

Organ Problems

Diseases affecting the heart, lungs, pancreas, gallbladder, and kidneys can sometimes cause referred pain that is felt in the upper back.

Mental Health Issues

Stress and conditions like anxiety or depression can manifest with upper back pain from tense muscles.

While those are some of the most common causes, there are many other medical reasons for upper back pain ranging from tumors to infections. That’s why proper diagnosis is what’s vital for effective treatment.

Sensations Connected to Upper Back Pain

Numerous factors dictate the symptoms of upper back pain can vary depending on the cause and which structures are affected. Here are some of the most common sensations:

  • Sharp, stabbing pains in between the shoulder blades or along the spine
  • Dull, aching throb along the upper back muscles
  • Stiffness and difficulty moving the upper back
  • Pain that feels like a tight band around the chest
  • Tenderness and pain over the rib cage
  • Shooting pain down the arms or numbness in the hands
  • Headaches at the base of the skull
  • Pain that gets worse when breathing deeply

Pay attention to any other symptoms that occur along with your upper back pain, especially “red flags” like unexplained weight loss, fevers, or loss of bowel/bladder function which could signify a serious medical issue requiring prompt evaluation.

However, the good news is the majority of upper back pain cases are due to muscle strain or minor injuries that can be treated with rest, ice, over-the-counter pain medication, and physical therapy. Still, it’s important to consult your doctor if the pain persists beyond a few weeks.

When to See a Doctor for Upper Back Pain

Mild to moderate upper back pain often resolves with some rest, over-the-counter medication, and home treatment. But you should make an appointment with your doctor if you experience:

  • Severe or progressively worsening upper back pain
  • Pain lasting more than 1-2 weeks
  • Inability to perform normal daily activities
  • Pain after an injury like a car accident
  • Pain combined with worrisome symptoms like numbness or tingling
  • Unexplained weight loss, fevers, or chills
  • Loss of bowel or bladder control

Seeking timely medical care is crucial for proper diagnosis and treatment of any underlying medical conditions causing your upper back pain.

Diagnosing the Cause of Upper Back Pain

To pinpoint the cause of your upper back pain, your doctor will likely begin with:

Medical History

They’ll ask about your pain symptoms, when the pain began, injury history, chronic health conditions, and any other relevant medical issues.

Physical Exam

They’ll assess your spine flexibility, range of motion, reflexes, muscle tightness, pain locations, and neurological function.

Imaging Tests

X-rays, MRIs, or CT scans provide clear views of the bones, discs, muscles, nerves, and soft tissues in your upper back.

Other Testing

Blood tests can check for infections or arthritis. Nerve tests like EMG/NCV assess nerve damage. Your doctor may order additional testing based on your symptoms.

Once the cause is diagnosed, an effective upper back pain treatment plan can be created tailored to your specific condition.

Treatments to Consider for Upper Back Pain Relief

a man checks his medications for upper back pain

The right treatments for your upper back pain depend on the underlying cause, severity, and duration. Here are some of the most common options:


Over-the-counter NSAIDs like ibuprofen reduce swelling and pain. Muscle relaxers ease spasms. Steroid injections directly decrease inflammation.

Physical Therapy

PT utilizes stretches, exercises, manual therapy, and modalities like heat/ice to improve mobility and strengthen the muscles supporting the upper back.

Chiropractic Care

Spinal adjustments and manipulations can improve alignment and relieve pain from joint dysfunction or nerve impingements.

Massage Therapy

Massage techniques can loosen tight upper back muscles, increase blood flow, and reduce aches and pains.

Lifestyle Changes

Improving posture, losing excess weight, quitting smoking, and managing stress can help reduce recurrent upper back pain.


If conservative treatments fail, surgery may be warranted depending on the cause, such as removing a tumor, repairing a fracture, or decompressing a pinched nerve.

Finding the right upper back pain treatment takes patience, as your doctor collaborates with you to try different therapies until they discover the best combination for lasting relief.

Managing pain is a gradual process, but committing to the plan your doctor creates can help you successfully reduce upper back pain over time.

Upper Back Pain Prevention Guidelines

While not all upper back pain can be avoided, there are some proactive steps you can take to prevent issues:

  • Maintain proper posture when sitting, standing, and sleeping
  • Build strength with upper back exercises like rows and presses
  • Stretch tight chest and shoulder muscles
  • Lose excess weight to reduce strain on the spine
  • Use good form when lifting heavy objects
  • Take regular movement breaks during repetitive tasks
  • Ensure workstations are ergonomically adjusted
  • Sleep on a medium-firm, supportive mattress
  • Manage and reduce stress
  • Wear supportive shoes with cushioning and arch support
  • Quit smoking to improve bone strength
  • Up your intake of calcium and vitamin D

Making healthy lifestyle choices and using proper body mechanics can go a long way toward preventing painful upper back problems before they start.

Let Kaly Help You Find the Right Doctor

patient and doctor consultation for upper back pain issues

If you’re dealing with upper back pain, you don’t have to simply live with it. By understanding the various causes and seeking a proper medical diagnosis, you can find the right treatments to reduce your pain and improve mobility.

Using Kaly’s innovative matching platform, you can easily connect with top-rated local family medicine physicians, internists, pain specialists, physiotherapists, and chiropractors who have verified experience treating upper back pain.

Read real patient reviews so you can choose a compassionate provider who fits your needs. Request a visit online today so you can get on the path to lasting upper back pain relief!