Upper Back Pain: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment options
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Jun, 2024

Upper Back Pain

Upper back pain, also known as thoracic back pain, is a common complaint that can range from mild discomfort to severe, debilitating pain. The upper back, or thoracic spine, is composed of the vertebrae and muscles that support the middle and upper parts of the back. 


Symptoms of upper back pain can vary depending on the underlying cause but may include:
  • Dull, aching pain: Pain may be localized to the upper back or radiate to the shoulders, neck, or arms.
  • Stiffness: Reduced range of motion in the upper back and difficulty with movements such as bending or twisting.
  • Muscle tightness: Tension or tightness in the muscles of the upper back.
  • Sharp or shooting pain: Pain that worsens with movement or certain activities.
  • Numbness or tingling: Sensations of numbness or tingling in the arms or hands in some cases.


Common causes of upper back pain include:
  • Muscle strain: Overuse, poor posture, or sudden movements can strain the muscles and ligaments in the upper back.
  • Poor posture: Prolonged sitting, slouching, or hunching over electronic devices can contribute to upper back pain.
  • Injury: Trauma from accidents, falls, or sports-related injuries can cause upper back pain.
  • Degenerative conditions: Conditions such as osteoarthritis, degenerative disc disease, or spinal stenosis can affect the vertebrae and discs in the upper back.
  • Joint dysfunction: Dysfunction or misalignment of the facet joints in the spine can lead to upper back pain.


Diagnosing the underlying cause of upper back pain typically involves a thorough medical history, physical examination, and sometimes, imaging studies. Tests may include:
  • Physical examination: A healthcare provider may assess posture, range of motion, and perform specific maneuvers to identify areas of tenderness or dysfunction.
  • Imaging tests: X-rays, MRIs, or CT scans may be ordered to evaluate the structure of the spine and identify any abnormalities or degenerative changes.
  • Electromyography (EMG): EMG testing may be recommended to assess nerve function and identify nerve compression or damage.


Treatment for upper back pain aims to relieve pain, improve mobility, and address underlying causes. Treatment options may include:
  • Pain management: Over-the-counter or prescription pain medications, such as NSAIDs or muscle relaxants, may be prescribed to alleviate pain and discomfort.
  • Physical therapy: Targeted exercises and stretches can help improve posture, strengthen muscles, and increase flexibility in the upper back.
  • Posture correction: Conscious efforts to maintain proper posture, ergonomic adjustments, and regular breaks from prolonged sitting can help alleviate upper back pain caused by poor posture.
  • Heat or ice therapy: Applying heat packs or ice packs to the affected area can help reduce inflammation and relieve muscle tension.
  • Injections: Corticosteroid injections or nerve blocks may be recommended for severe or persistent upper back pain to provide temporary relief and reduce inflammation.


Upper back pain can significantly impact daily life and overall well-being if left untreated. By understanding the symptoms, causes, and treatment options, individuals can take proactive steps to manage and alleviate their discomfort, promoting better posture, mobility, and quality of life.


Q: Can stress cause upper back pain?

A: Yes, stress and tension can lead to muscle tightness and discomfort in the upper back and neck. Practicing relaxation techniques and stress management strategies may help alleviate symptoms.

Q: Is upper back pain a sign of a heart attack?

A: While upper back pain can be a symptom of a heart attack, it is not the only indicator. Other symptoms such as chest pain, shortness of breath, and nausea should also be considered, and immediate medical attention should be sought if experiencing these symptoms.

Q: Can poor posture cause upper back pain?

A: Yes, maintaining poor posture, especially when sitting or standing for long periods, can strain the muscles and ligaments in the upper back, leading to pain and discomfort. Improving posture through ergonomic adjustments and posture exercises may help alleviate symptoms.

Q: Are there specific exercises to relieve upper back pain?

A: Yes, certain exercises can help strengthen the muscles in the upper back and improve posture, reducing pain and stiffness. These may include shoulder blade squeezes, thoracic spine stretches, and chest opening exercises. However, it's essential to consult with a healthcare professional before starting any new exercise routine.

Q: When should I see a doctor for upper back pain?

A: If you experience persistent or severe upper back pain that does not improve with rest or home remedies, or if your pain is accompanied by other concerning symptoms such as weakness, numbness, or difficulty breathing, it's important to consult with a healthcare professional for proper evaluation and treatment.

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