Upper Back Pain

What is upper back pain?

Upper back pain is pain between your neck and your lower back.

In the center of your upper back are 12 bones called thoracic vertebrae. Muscles and ligaments help keep the vertebrae in their proper position.

What is the cause?

Back pain is usually caused by injuries to the ligaments or muscles that attach to the vertebrae. (Ligaments are strong bands of tissue that hold the bones in place.) Upper back pain can result from:

  • Throwing, bending, or twisting
  • Lifting or carrying heavy things or reaching to put objects on a high shelf
  • Poor posture, especially from using a computer for a long time
  • Overuse
  • A fall or car accident
  • Sitting at a desk for a long time
  • Rowing
  • Carrying a heavy backpack, especially over one shoulder
  • Forceful coughing or sneezing
  • Scoliosis, which means that the spine curves from side to side rather than running straight down the back

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms may include:

  • Muscle spasms that feel like a knot or tightness in the muscle
  • Pain when you take a deep breath
  • Pain when your back is touched or when you move
  • Pain when you move your shoulders or bend your neck forward

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will examine you and ask about your symptoms, activities, and medical history.

How is it treated?

You will need to change or stop doing the activities that cause pain until your upper back has healed.

Your healthcare provider may recommend stretching and strengthening exercises and other types of physical therapy to help you heal.

How can I help take care of myself?

To help relieve pain for the first few days after an injury:

  • Put an ice pack, gel pack, or package of frozen vegetables wrapped in a cloth on the injured area every 3 to 4 hours for up to 20 minutes at a time.
  • Take pain medicine, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or other medicine as directed by your provider. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, may cause stomach bleeding and other problems. These risks increase with age. Read the label and take as directed. Unless recommended by your healthcare provider, do not take for more than 10 days.

After the first few days, moist heat may help relax your muscles and make it easier to move your back. Put moist heat on the injured area for 10 to 15 minutes at a time to help relax tight muscles or muscle spasms and before you do warm-up and stretching exercises. Moist heat includes heat patches or moist heating pads that you can purchase at most drugstores, a wet washcloth or towel that has been heated in the dryer, or a hot shower. Don’t use heat if you have swelling.

Get a back massage by someone trained in giving massages.

Do the exercises recommended by your healthcare provider.

Follow your healthcare provider's instructions. Ask your provider:

  • How and when you will hear your test results
  • How long it will take to recover
  • What activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
  • How to take care of yourself at home
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them

Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup.

How can I help prevent upper back pain?

Here are some of the things you can do to help prevent upper back pain:

  • Do warm-up exercises and stretching before activities.
  • Try not to twist when you lift something heavy.
  • If you work on a computer, take frequent breaks to stretch your neck and back.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Published by RelayHealth.
Copyright ©2014 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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