Common causes of upper back pain

Do you suffer from frequent upper back pain? If so, you’re not alone. Millions of people experience back pain on a daily basis for many different reasons.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore common causes of upper back pain, and ways to manage it.


Back pain is a persistent issue for many people. Its causes can often be difficult to pinpoint, and treatments can range from simple lifestyle changes to more complex medical interventions. Upper back pain is especially common, affecting approximately 20% of adults in the United States. The following guide provides an overview of some of the most common causes of upper back pain and guidance on how to approach treatment.

In the following sections, we will discuss possible causes and treatments for upper back pain including posture-related issues, musculoskeletal conditions, age-related degeneration, and trauma-related injuries. We will also cover some general tips that may help alleviate or prevent any type of back pain. Knowing these details can help you better understand how to manage your symptoms for more comfortable living.

Definition of Upper Back Pain

Upper back pain typically refers to discomfort, or pain that is felt in the thoracic spine, or middle-to-upper back area. Upper back pain can be localized to one area, radiating in nature (meaning that it can spread to other areas of your upper body such as the neck, trapezius muscles, or even down the arm), or a combination of the two.

Upper back pain is not necessarily exclusive to one particular cause but can result from any of these common causes: musculoskeletal conditions such as muscle strain, poor posture; injuries due to trauma such as a car accident; underlying medical conditions like kidney stones or osteoporosis; problems with the disc between two vertebrae pressing on a spinal nerve due to sudden movements or posture changes; and even less common causes like tumors. It is important for those suffering from upper back pain to note that it may vary greatly in intensity and duration depending on its cause.

Treatment for upper back pain will depend upon identification of possible sources of the problem.

Importance of identifying causes of Upper Back Pain

Identifying the causes of upper back pain and properly treating them are crucial to relieving ongoing discomfort and pain. To avoid further injury or misjudgment, it is important to understand the source and location of your symptoms, rather than self-diagnosing. This can help you determine if the source of your back pain is a minor issue that can be resolved with simple lifestyle changes, or a more severe condition such as scoliosis, spinal stenosis or slipped disc — which may require extensive medical care or surgery. Additionally, understanding your unique triggers for soreness or tightness in this area can further aid in prevention and recovery.

To help you correctly identify potential causes of upper back pain and take an informed action plan for treatment, it’s important to look at all potential sources and consider whether or not they are related to your experiences. Common causes include: incorrect posture; strained muscles; poor ergonomics – e.g., not using proper cushioning when sitting in chairs; physical trauma from overuse injuries like tennis elbow; disc herniation; Conditions such as degenerative disc disease (DDD); Poorly designed equipment used in sports such as golf clubs with too little shaft length relative to body height; acute illnesses such as an infectious cold; psychological causes including stress and anxiety related tension disorders. Additionally, involving medical scans like MRIs will also help determine any underlying issues like abnormal anatomy causing abrasions on joint surfaces that could lead to chronic pain if not addressed quickly.

Anatomy of the Upper Back

The spine is divided into four regions:

  1. Cervical spine (neck)
    2. Thoracic spine (upper back and chest)
    3. Lumbar spine (lower back)
    4. Sacral spine (pelvis and tailbone).

The thoracic or upper back region has 12 small bones or vertebrae that are connected by nerves, muscles, ligaments, and other tissues. The vertebrae protect the spinal cord and provide structure for the back muscles to attach onto at each segment where it can move your arms; It also houses a great number of nerves that help control movement of the arms, shoulders, neck, ribs and many other parts of the body below it.

The rib cage attaches to the thoracic vertebrae which makes this section both flexible and rigid at the same time an important component in your body’s ability to not only protect its vital organs but also perform complex movements such as throwing a punch or simply reaching behind you for something. It is best viewed as a link between your neck/shoulders and lower back muscles/ligaments in terms of body posture support while also supporting one end of your ribcage which allows deep breathing capability as well as supporting healthy organ function within it this section has important implications when assessing any issues stemming from here because most imbalances seen have roots further up towards shoulders or lower down towards lumbar section so review should focus on both endings if serious pain persists above thoracic level.

Spinal column structure

The spinal column consists of a series of bones, known as vertebrae, which form a protective cylinder around the spinal cord which carries nerves from the brain to the muscles of the body.

Spinal column structure can be affected due to injuries, anatomical abnormalities, and diseases such as scoliosis or arthritis. These can lead to compression on the nerve roots exiting from the spine and can also affect other elements such as discs and ligaments in between two vertebrae. This can lead to upper back pain in adults and elderly individuals.

It is important to seek medical advice if symptoms persist for more than a few days. Possible treatments could include physical therapy, massage therapy, exercises, lifestyle modifications or medications.

Muscles and ligaments

Muscles and ligaments in the back may be strained from poor posture, overuse, or injury. Most of the muscular pain occurs when there is a repetitive use of the muscles without adequate rest or from incorrect posture. The common causes of muscular pain are:

  1. Poor Posture: Sitting for too long in the same position with poor posture can create strain on the muscles in your upper back. This can be especially true for those who sit at a desk all day with their shoulders slumped forward and chin jutting out.
  2. Overuse/Repetition: Activities such as lifting heavy objects, gardening, playing sports can put undue stress and strain on the muscles if done repeatedly without rest or proper form. It is important to pay attention to proper lifting technique as this will help prevent injuries to your back muscles.

3.Activity Injuries: Sudden injury due to a fall or blow can cause excessive strain on your upper-back muscles resulting in pain and inflammation. If you suspect an injury has occurred you should seek professional medical help immediately rather than attempting to ‘tough it out’

Nerve pathways

The nerve pathways that pass through your upper back and shoulders are sometimes the cause of upper back pain. These conditions can be caused by an injury or a disorder, such as pinched nerves, herniated discs and overuse syndromes.

Pinched nerves can occur in any of the vertebrae that make up the spine, causing nerve pain to radiate down your arm and cause tingling or numbness. Herniated discs can also press on the adjacent nerve roots and magnify pain throughout your back and down as far as your legs. Overuse syndromes are fairly common in people with jobs requiring them to stand or sit in one place for long periods of time, straining specific muscles and soft tissues along their spines.

Treating these areas will depend on what is causing the pain or issue. Non-invasive treatments, such as rest and physical therapy, are often recommended if there is an injury or condition pressing against a nerve root or muscle. If surgery is needed, other treatments may include chiropractic manipulation or acupuncture to relieve pressure on nerves in order to reduce symptoms such as pain and tingling in the affected area.

III. Common Causes of Upper Back Pain

Upper back pain can be caused by a number of factors, including poor posture, injury, muscle tension, overuse or strain of associated muscles and ligaments, strong emotional upset or trauma. Other causes may include conditions such as fibromyalgia, herniated discs in the spine, degenerative disc disease and arthritis.

A doctor will want to determine the specific cause of your upper back pain before recommending a treatment plan. This guide provides an overview of the common causes of upper back pain so you can better understand its underlying source.

Muscle Strains: Muscles strains occur when muscle fibers are stretched too far and become strained or torn. Overuse injuries are most commonly seen in athletes who engage in repetitive-motion activities such as rowing or swimming. These activities can cause muscle fatigue leading to acute muscle strain which can result in varying levels of back pain. Treatment begins with rest followed by stretching and strengthening exercises that focus on building supportive tissues to relieve tension from the affected area.

Ligament Sprains: Ligament sprains often result from sudden involuntary movements or awkward movements that places stress on the ligaments connecting two or more bones together in the spine. This type of injury usually causes localized pain near where the ligaments have been injured and nerve damage may also occur in severe cases which can lead to additional symptoms such as numbness and tingling sensations in the extremities associated with that area. Milder sprains can often be treated with rest while more severe cases may require physical therapy to reduce inflammation while strengthening supportive muscles and connective tissues surrounding that area of the spine again restoring equilibrium between joint mobility and stabilizing force necessary for maintaining posture without discomfort.

Poor Posture

Poor posture is a common cause of upper back pain. This can occur when someone spends a lot of time in the same position, such as when working in an office chair or sitting at a desk. Poor posture can cause strain on the muscles, leading to pain that can be felt in the upper back and neck area.

Other activities that can contribute to poor posture and increase the risk of experiencing back pain are hunching over while texting or sleeping in an unnatural position. Poor posture can also lead to headaches, fatigue and muscular tension.

To prevent this type of issue, it is important to maintain good posture when doing any activity that requires sitting or standing for long periods of time. This includes using ergonomic furniture and taking regular breaks to stretch or walk around for a few minutes to prevent muscle stiffness from setting in.

Trauma and Injuries

Trauma and injuries, such as car accidents or falls, can be the cause of upper back pain. Often times the direct trauma of an accident or fall can cause injury to the muscles, ligaments, and/or discs in your back and neck.

Other examples of trauma related to upper back pain may include:

  • Sports-related injuries
  • Whiplash-associated disorders
  • Sprains/strains
  • Fractures in your upper spine
  • Pinched nerves (nerve impingement)
  • Muscle damage or spasms caused by overuse / strain

Directly before or after the initial injury, you may experience an increase of radiating pain down your shoulder blades. It is important that any soft tissue injuries sustained from a traumatic event be examined by a medical professional as soon as possible. A doctor will also assess for any vertebral fractures or whiplash associated disorders that could be present. Treatment may involve rest and ice therapy along with physical therapy focusing on range of motion and strength training exercises. Depending on the magnitude of your injury, anti-inflammatory medications may also be prescribed.

Risk Factors

When talking about upper back pain, consider all aspects of life which can contribute to the development of this condition. There are a variety of risk factors which have been linked to causing or increasing the likelihood of developing upper back pain. These include:

  1. Medical Conditions: Conditions such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, and cancer may increase the risk of experiencing upper back pain.
  2. Age: Generally speaking, as a person ages their risk for experiencing upper back pain may increase due to natural wear and tear on muscles and joints.
  3. Lifestyle Factors: People who lead sedentary lifestyles and maintaining poor posture can increase the risk for upper back pain. In addition, occupational factors including frequent heavy lifting or extended sitting postures can lead to injury and strain on muscular structures in the area leading to discomfort or chronic pain.
  4. Repetitive Movements: Doing repetitive activities such as typing or playing sports may put one at risk for developing injuries to soft tissue resulting in painful symptoms in the upper back region of the spine.


The most important part of diagnosing upper back pain is understanding the exact nature and severity of the problem. In order to obtain an accurate diagnosis, your doctor will first take a complete medical history, paying close attention to any recent illnesses or injuries that may have caused your pain. He or she will then perform a physical examination, checking for any signs of soft tissue damage such as swelling and tenderness.

Your doctor may also need to conduct imaging tests, such as X-rays or an MRI scan, in order to rule out other potential causes of upper back pain such as fractures or dislocated vertebrae. To rule out spinal issues such as a herniated disc or arthritis in the spine, your doctor may also require an electromyogram (EMG) nerve conduction study. This test can determine which nerves are affected by the injury and provide clarity on why you’re feeling pain in your upper back region.

Treatment Options

When seeking relief from upper back pain, one of the most commonly recommended treatments is stretching and exercise. This may include exercises that focus on individual muscle groups in your back, as well as exercises designed to enhance your overall posture. Stretching and exercise can help improve mobility, reduce tightness and pain, and restore balance to muscles groups in your core and throughout your upper body.

In some cases, physical therapy may be helpful in determining which stretches or exercises are the most beneficial based on the underlying cause of your pain. Your doctor or physical therapist can also teach you proper technique that may help prevent further pain or injury.

Other treatment options for upper back pain include medications such as Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAID) like ibuprofen or naproxen. These medications can reduce inflammation and alleviate discomfort associated with various types of musculoskeletal pain. If necessary, stronger medications such as opioids may be prescribed for more severe cases of upper back pain.

Corticosteroid injections may be given directly into the spinal joints or muscles if other treatments have not proved effective in relieving symptoms. These injections are intended to reduce inflammation and provide targeted relief from chronic inflammation in painful areas of the spine. Heat therapies such as hot packs, infrared saunas, ultrasound therapy can also help relieve muscle tension and reduce inflammation associated with acute injuries like strains or sprains. Lastly, surgery is an option if conservative treatments prove ineffective in providing relief from chronic conditions like degenerative disc disease that are causing persistent pain in the upper back area.

VII. Prevention

Preventing back pain is much easier than treating it. Achieving and maintaining good posture and strengthening the muscles that support the spine are key components in preventing back pain. According to the Mayo Clinic, everyday activities such as sitting for extended periods of time or participating in high-impact sports can put strain on your upper back, so developing muscle awareness, strength, and flexibility are essential to managing aches and avoiding injury.

The following exercises can help to strengthen the muscles around your back and abdomen:

  • Yoga poses such as cobra pose and cat-cow pose can help build strong core muscles.
  • Bridge pose will strengthen abdominal muscles and help you hold good posture throughout the day.
  • Wall slides help improve range of movement enabling you to move more freely without straining your spine.
  • Lying leg lifts increase flexibility in your lower lumbar section while engaging abdominal core muscles.

Stretching is an important component of any exercise regimen aimed at avoiding back pain:

  • Child’s pose stretch is a gentle way to open up the hips, low back and shoulders while elongating the spine.
  • Figure four stretch targets specific tight areas such as hip flexors, hamstrings, glutes, piriformis, IT band etc while also relieving tension from lower lumbar section.
  • Threading the needle helps loosen muscle fibers in between shoulder blades by allowing you to get deeper tissue mobilization along your spine when practiced with breathing techniques for further relaxation effect which results in increased range of movement along with increased flexibility till the end of your spine.

VIII. Conclusion

Upper back pain is a very common issue, and it can be caused by a wide variety of factors. It is important to consult a physician or healthcare professional before starting treatment, as the underlying cause must be identified in order to determine the best course of action. It is also important to pay attention to posture and lifestyle habits that may contribute to upper back pain.

Strengthening exercises, stretching, and good ergonomic practices can help improve posture and reduce discomfort. In cases of extreme pain or limited mobility, physical therapy or other treatments may be necessary. The most effective solutions will depend on specific individual factors such as age, medical history, physical condition, lifestyle habits, and the underlying cause(s) of the condition in question.

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