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Causes of Upper Back Pain
Upper back pain occurs between the base of the neck and the bottom of the rib cage. Upper back pain can come on suddenly or develop over time depending on the case.
While upper back pain is not as common as lower back pain, it can still interfere with your life. Here are some of the causes of upper back pain, as well as ways you can receive professional help if you experience upper back pain.
Signs of Upper Back Pain
Upper back pain can feel different to everyone. However, some general signs of upper back pain include:1
- Sharp pain
- Radiating pain that travels to the chest, arm, or body. It usually is only felt on one side of the body
- Discomfort in the upper back, shoulders, or neck area
- Stiffness or soreness
- Numbness in the upper back
If your upper back pain causes you to be unable to carry out daily activities, talk to a medical professional. They should be able diagnose the cause of your back pain and help you find the best treatment options.
If you notice any signs of a heart attack alongside your back pain – including shortness of breath, sweating, jaw pain, or nausea – call 911.
What Causes Upper Back Pain?
Here are some of the causes of upper back pain.
- Poor posture. Your posture may be the cause of your back pain. When you don’t use your muscles, they will slowly begin to atrophy and can cause pain when you try to use them. Poor posture includes leaning too much to one side during the day or sitting for too long. This can weaken your muscles in the back and cause your joints to misalign in the spine.2
- Muscle overuse. You can strain and irritate your muscles by overusing them, typically through repetitive motions or lifting objects. Usually, this occurs by doing the same motions over and over again, or lifting objects that are too heavy. Over time, your muscles can become irritated and strained. A few examples of muscle overuse include a pitcher throwing a baseball and overusing their arm, or someone who frequently stretches their arms over their head in the same way to stretch.3
- Arthritis. Arthritis is a common cause of back pain, with osteoarthritis being the most common type to affect the spine. It is estimated that there are over 100 forms of arthritis, and many of them affect the back or neck. Arthritis commonly causes you to feel pain in your spine through inflammation that occurs at the joints.4
- Disk problems. Known as a ‘slipped disk’ or ‘herniated disc,’ this type of back pain occurs when a disc in the upper back compresses against a nerve. Each vertebra in your spine has a disc that sits between them to provide cushion, and the vertebra sit closely to the A slipped disc can occur due to overexertion or mishandling heavy objects, such as weights.5
- Fractures. If you fracture a bone in your spine or vertebrae, this is called a compression fracture. The pain of a fracture can start gradually or come on sharply. When you have a spine fracture, you may have trouble twisting your body and may only feel comfort when laying down.6
- Strains and sprains. If you strain a muscle in your back, you will feel back pain. A strain or sprain can be caused by twisting or pulling your back muscles. A muscle sprain can be instant, such as lifting an object that is too heavy, or can occur over time from using the same muscles over and over again.
- Spinal infection. Although it is rare, a spinal infection may be the cause of your upper back pain. Bacteria and pus form a spinal epidural abscess, which can grow and swell. As the abscess grows, it causes back pain. If you have a spinal infection, an early diagnosis can prevent health complications.3
- Accidents. If you were recently involved in an accident – such as a car accident or falling off a ladder – then this may be the cause of your back pain. Accidents can cause damage to your spine or surrounding tissues. It is recommended that you visit a doctor if you have recently been in an accident.
What to do if You Experience Upper Back Pain
Usually, upper back pain will resolve itself on its own. However, if you experience upper back pain that does not go away, it is recommended that you see a medical professional.
- Upper back pain that occurs longer than a week
- Weakness or numbness in the arms, legs, or buttocks
- Pain that interferes with sleep and daily activities
- Difficulty breathing
- Pain after a sudden injury or fall
- Symptoms such as a fever occurring alongside your pain
Factors That Increase Back Pain Risk
Some people may be more likely to experience upper back pain than others. Some of the common factors include:8
- Age: Upper back pain usually begins in your 30s and 40s. As you age, your likelihood to experience back pain increases.
- Being out of shape. If you do not exercise, then your muscles may begin to atrophy. This can cause pain when you decide to use them.
- Weight. Those who are overweight may be more likely to experience upper back pain because the weight can put more strain on their back.
- Health conditions. If you have arthritis or cancer, you are more likely to experience back pain.
How to Prevent Upper Back Pain
Here are a few tips you can use to prevent upper back pain in the future.
- Exercise – regular exercise can keep the muscles in your back strong and help you reduce back pain
- Maintain good posture – when you’re sitting in a chair, sit up straight. Avoid slouching or leaning to the side.
- Avoid muscle strain – avoid picking up objects that may be too heavy or performing activities that may overexert your muscles
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Saber Healthcare is an organization dedicated to providing consultant services to long-term care providers. This article is for informational purposes and is not meant to be seen as professional advice. Please consult with a medical expert before relying on the information provided.
- Sellers, J. Talbot. “Upper Back Pain Symptoms.” Spine-Health. Last Updated 10 February 2023. Accessed 23 March 2023. Link: https://www.spine-health.com/conditions/upper-back-pain/upper-back-pain-symptoms
- Sellers, J. Talbot. “Upper Back Pain Causes.” Spine-Health. Last Updated 9 November 2017. Accessed 23 March 2023. Link: https://www.spine-health.com/conditions/upper-back-pain/causes-upper-back-pain
- Johnson, Jon. Morrison, William, ed. “What are the most likely causes of upper back pain?” MedicalNewsToday. Last Updated 11 January 2023. Accessed 23 March 2023. Link: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/323839
- “Spinal Arthritis (Arthritis in the Back or Neck).” John Hopkins Medicine. Accessed 23 March 2023. Link: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/spinal-arthritis
- “Slipped disc.” co.uk. Accessed 23 March 2023. Link: https://www.physio.co.uk/what-we-treat/musculoskeletal/conditions/upper-back/slipped-disc.php#:~:text=A%20'slipped%20disc'%20is%20a,tissue%20that%20sit%20between%20them.
- Ratini, Melinda, ed. “Symptoms of a Spinal Compression Fracture.” WebMD. Accessed 23 March 2023. Link: https://www.webmd.com/osteoporosis/guide/spinal-compression-fractures-symptoms
- “Most Common Causes of Upper Back Pain.” The Pain Center. 12 June 2013. Accessed 23 March 2023. Link: https://www.thepaincenter.com/blog/most-common-causes-of-upper-back-pain/
- Wheeler, Ty. “Why Does My Middle and Upper Back Hurt?” Accessed 17 November 2023. 23 March 2023. Link: https://www.webmd.com/back-pain/why-does-my-middle-and-upper-back-hurt