Sydney is a contributing health writer and editor who enjoys shedding light on health topics, making information available to anyone who wants it, and ending stigmas or lack of access to care and treatment.
Dr. Aaron Wiegmann
Dr. Wiegmann earned his medical degree (M.D.) from Rush Medical College and completed his General Surgery residency at Rush University Medical Center and Cook County Hospital. He has a Master's Degree (M.S.) in clinical research and has published numerous peer-reviewed articles.
April 12, 2021
Upper back pain refers to any kind of pain in your thoracic spine, which starts at your lower neck and contains 12 vertebrae that go down your torso. Upper back pain could be due to muscle or nerve irritation, or joint dysfunction.
Just like with many conditions, early identification and development of a treatment plan with a licensed physician is key. We work with a telehealth company called PlushCare, where you can make an online appointment with a doctor. Their services are secure, affordable, and convenient for anyone with or without insurance.
The vertebrae at the upper back are the ones that support the ribs and provide protection for the heart and the lungs. They are the most rigid and strongest among the vertebrae! Because of this durability, the upper back can withstand heavy loads and pressure more than your lower back.
The upper vertebrae are also the most complicated of the vertebrae as they are attached to the ribs and enclosed the chest. Due to that, any effect on the ribs or organs in the chest may have consequences on the upper vertebrae and can lead to upper back pain.
If you experience pain in this region, it is usually an accumulation of stress on the vertebrae over a long period of time. That means it’s time to fix the bad posture you’ve been allowing over the years!
While upper back pain is normally caused by bad posture over an extended period of time, you can cause immediate damage with an acute injury to the muscles that connect your shoulder blade and vertebrae. When you strain the muscles by overusing them, they become irritated and tightened, causing pain to the upper back.
Some specific causes of upper back pain include:
And of course, bad posture is a leading cause of upper back pain, but it takes years of slumping over for permanent damage to be done, so it’s never too late to work on your posture and prevent any permanent damage or weakening of your upper back.
While upper back pain is not likely to be life-threatening, in some cases, it might be problematic enough to warrant a visit to the doctor. Visit your doctor if you are in any of the following categories:
Obviously pain is the primary symptom of upper back pain, but pain can feel differently to different people, and severity of the pain has a wide range. Common symptoms of upper back pain include:
Remember to listen to your body, and don’t discount aches, pain, soreness, or even tingling you’re feeling.
There are many ways you can relieve pain in your thoracic spine. Some examples of relief options include:
The first thing is to figure out what caused your upper back pain. If you feel it is due to overuse of your vertebrae and muscles, stop the activity and take a rest. Whether it’s from work, exercise, or certain movements, try to refrain from them once you begin experiencing pain.
Many people find temporary relief from either cold or hot compresses. Using ice can really help with acute injuries to stop swelling, and heat can help with more consistent pain. You can use an electric heating pad, use a hot water heating bag, or microwave a cotton sack filled with rice, dried corn, or flaxseed.
Massages will help relieve pressure on your muscles, allow blood to circulate properly, and provide relief for thoracic spine pain. You can self-massage, let a family or friend help you, but it’s probably best to leave it to the professionals in most cases, as they understand pressure points and won’t accidentally make the pain worse!
There are many over-the-counter painkillers that you can purchase to relieve your upper back pain. Most common medicines for back pain are Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as naproxen (Aleve) and ibuprofen (Advil). Over time these can lead to potentially serious complications, so consult your doctor if you are using them consistently for back pain.
If a high-impact injury or anatomic problem causes upper back pain, surgery may be necessary – but your doctor will avoid that if at all possible. There are also injections that can relieve pain in the upper spine. Prescription drugs are more effective in treating severe pains than over-the-counter painkillers, but they are controlled substances with a high risk for abuse and many side effects.
There are physical therapies and rehabilitations that can strengthen the muscles attached to your upper vertebrae, allowing them to withstand more strain without causing pain, and ultimately get you to the point you were before you required physical therapy.
Chiropractic is a type of alternative medicine that treats any issues within the musculoskeletal system. You might mix visits to a chiropractor with a combination of other treatments for pain in your upper back. Always consult with a physician prior to seeing a chiropractor.
Acupuncture involves placing needles in some parts of your body to control energy flow. It has been used for centuries to treat pain and other conditions throughout your body.
You should be concerned about pain in your back if you notice it getting significantly worse or not improving, it has lasted consistently for over six weeks, or you are at risk for other health conditions. Some red flags that, paired with upper back pain, might be an emergency include:
These symptoms could be caused by a variety of conditions including nerve compression, spine infection, and many more. Seek emergency medical care if you believe this is your case.
If you are simply tired of dealing with the dull ache characterized by back pain, you can make an appointment with our telehealth partner site, PlushCare, and speak to a doctor about treatment plans for your thoracic spine concerns.
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