What is upper back pain?
Upper back pain causes many people discomfort and frustration. But what causes it?
Your back includes a complex system of vertebrae, disks, muscles, nerves, and ligaments. If this area is injured or irritated, it may lead to pain in the upper back and in other areas of the body.
Upper back pain is less common than lower back pain, but it does affect many people. Temporary or long-lasting (chronic) pain can impact your work, social and family life, and even complicate other health conditions.
Fortunately, there are things you can do about it. There are several possible causes of your pain, and multiple ways to address it. By working with a doctor or other healthcare professional, such as a physical therapist, you can solve your upper back pain issues.
Symptoms of upper back pain
Upper back pain refers to pain between the neck and bottom of the rib cage. It’s sometimes called upper and middle back pain. The pain may be described in different ways, but often feels like one of the following:
- A dull ache
- A burning sensation
- A sharp pain
- Muscle tightness
Depending on the cause of the pain, it may coincide with other symptoms. These should be treated immediately, as they might relate to other more serious issues. These concerning symptoms include:
- Arm or leg weakness
- Numbness in the chest, belly, arms, or legs
- Problems with controlling the bladder or bowels
Causes of upper back pain
There are several possible causes of upper back pain. Here’s a look at potential problems.
Long periods of sitting
Sitting for long spells, particularly with poor posture, can lead to upper back pain. These long periods can weaken the back, making it difficult to keep the spine in alignment. This could occur with jobs that require a lot of typing or other computer work, or while driving long distances.
Injury or strain
You may have an injury to your muscle, ligaments, or spine. Lifting objects, participating in fitness activities, or experiencing a fall could all lead to a back injury. Even incidents that seem minor could impact your back.
Some people experience upper back pain following a more serious incident such as a major fall or car accident. This could significantly injure any part of the upper back.
When to see the doctor for upper back pain
There are some conditions that are more serious than occasional back pain. If these symptoms occur, you should call 9-11 or other emergency services.
Heart attack symptoms
Sometimes upper back pain can signal a heart attack — especially in women. This is a serious medical event that could lead to death if not treated immediately.
Other symptoms of a heart attack in women include pressure or pain in the chest, sweating, shortness of breath, and nausea. If you experience these signs, seek medical help as soon as possible.
Spinal injury symptoms
Many times car accidents cause back pain due to the body moving around on impact, sometimes sharply. Upper back pain can occur as part of a spinal injury following an accident.
Other symptoms of a spinal injury include partial paralysis, severe weakness, or tingling in other parts of the body.
Ongoing and severe pain
Any time you experience ongoing or severe pain, it’s helpful to talk to a doctor. Long-lasting or intense pain could be a sign of other health problems. A doctor can help you rule out more serious issues and create a treatment plan to help you find relief.
Diagnosing upper back pain
Your doctor will ask you about recent activity that might have contributed to your back pain. The doctor will also complete a physical exam, and might manipulate your back or head while observing your body’s response.
Imaging tests may also help identify and diagnose problems. Tests might include X-rays or a magnetic resonance imaging scan (MRI). Careful screenings like these will help your doctor determine a cause or rule out potential causes of your pain.
Treatments for upper back pain
Depending on the severity of the pain, many treatments may help relieve upper back problems. Milder treatments might include the following. While these options may seem minor, they can often have a big impact:
- Over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen or Tylenol
- Use of heat and/or ice on the painful area
- Physical therapy
If the issue is more serious, your doctor may recommend more significant treatments. These are generally reserved for more severe cases. However, they might include:
- Prescription pain medicine
- Steroid shots
- Muscle relaxants
For chronic pain, doctors may recommend therapy or antidepressants to address mental health issues that can overlap. Ongoing pain can lead to increased stress, which can make pain worse, and vice versa. In rare cases with more severe issues, surgery may be needed. If this happens, your doctor will discuss your options and prognosis.
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