What is Upper Back Pain?

Although upper back pain is slightly rarer than lower back pain, it is still relatively common condition.

The upper back comprises the portion of the vertebrae that connects the top of the rib cage, between the shoulder blades and the base of the neck. Most upper back pain typically concentrates around the shoulders and neck.

While most instances of upper back pain resolve themselves on their own, some require a physician's diagnosis and treatment. If your upper back pain doesn't go away in a few days to weeks, contact your doctor. He may prescribe lifestyle changes or mild pain medication. However, if the diagnosis is serious, you may need more complex solutions, such as surgery. Meet with your doctor for more information and options.


Upper back pain has several potential causes. These include:

  • Old age - Over time, the joints in your upper back may gradually decay. This is part of the natural aging process, and it may lead to a loss of flexibility and back pain.
  • Injury - Certain injuries can damage the neck and upper back, including sprains, unnatural and sharp movements, and accidents.
  • Kyphosis - This is a common postural condition in people who hold necks in a certain position for long periods of time. It occurs when the neck bends forward too much and the chin juts out.
  • Herniated discs - When the cartilage discs between your vertebrae become damaged, it causes the fluid inside to inflame the highly-sensitive outer edge of the discs, affecting the entire back. Herniated discs are more common in the lower back, but they occasionally occur in the upper back.
  • Scheuermann's Disease - This genetic condition is most commonly seen in young athletes, where the upper spine begins to curve unnaturally forward.

There may be other conditions causing your upper back pain. Depending on your medical history and the nature of the pain, your physician will be able to provide a more complete diagnosis.


Common upper back pain symptoms include:

  • Burning, shooting or aching pain
  • Numbness
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Poor posture
  • Muscle spasms
  • Misalignment of the neck
  • Loss of mobility

In serious cases, upper back pain may itself be a symptom of much more serious conditions that can cause paralysis or coma. For instance, if the vertebra near the neck pinches the nerves at the base of the brain stem, it may lead to problems with breathing, sleep and mental processes.

Always contact your doctor if your upper back pain continues to worsen.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Your doctor will diagnose your upper back pain by conducting a physical exam and asking you about your medical history, daily routine and work habits. This will help the doctor determine if your pain is simply due to stress, overwork or poor posture, or if it is more serious. If the doctor believes that your pain is serious, you may need an X-ray or MRI scan.

For minor upper back pain, you can generally soothe it by practicing light stretching exercises, maintaining good posture and taking over-the-counter pain medication.

Ice and heat therapy may help slightly in more serious cases of pain; massage therapy, physical therapy and acupuncture are additional options.

For the most severe cases of upper back pain, you may need a surgical procedure like a laminotomy or laminectomy. You receive and confirm the diagnosis with your doctor before undergoing a surgical procedure. Make an appointment if your upper back pain turns chronic and doesn't resolve after milder self treatment.

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