Read below about upper back pain, including causes, treatment options and remedies. Or get a personalized analysis of your upper back pain from our A.I. health assistant. At Buoy, we build tools that help you know what’s wrong right now and how to get the right care.

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Upper Back Pain Symptoms

When someone says "back pain," most people think of the more common lower back pain but upper back pain is also a cause of significant distress for people. The upper back is a complex area and is nearby important structures. All of the nerves that allow us to feel or move are routed through the spinal column featured prominently in the middle, and the largest blood vessel in the body leaves the heart and travels down the back of the chest, again near the upper back. Additionally, the muscles in this region are important for keeping your torso upright and for moving your shoulders and arms every which way. Thus, most pain in the upper back is due to injury to or inflammation of these structures, most typically the muscles.

Upper back pain may be associated with these common symptoms:

  • Pain with movement of the back, neck or arms
  • Soreness
  • Weakness
  • Difficulty moving the arms

Upper Back Pain Causes Overview

The majority of upper back pain is due to overuse of the muscles of the upper back, as one might suspect. But your upper back is also home to your spine, and a number of other structures that might be injured and cause pain in that area.

Musculoskeletal upper back pain causes:

  • Muscle strain: Exercise or overuse of the muscles of the upper back or arms may lead to pain in this region as they repair themselves.
  • Spinal injury: Fractures of the upper spine or problems with the discs in between the vertebrae may cause upper back pain symptoms.
  • Shoulder Injury: Various injuries to the shoulder may cause pain in the back of the shoulder, around the upper back.
  • Wear and tear: Some individuals may experience neck pain as the result of wear and tear of the upper portions of the spine, ranging from mild to severe.

Other upper back pain causes:

  • Aortic Disease: Disease of the aorta, the large blood vessel that comes directly off the heart, especially life-threatening tears or dissection, causes sudden chest pain or back pain.
  • Inflammation: Certain autoimmune diseases may attack the spine, causing upper back pain.
  • Infection: Rarely, infection may spread to the bones of the spine, causing pain. Some infections, such as shingles, can affect the skin overlying the upper back and cause pain.
  • Masses: Rarely, cancers may spread to or push on the spine, causing upper back pain.

8 Potential Upper Back Pain Causes

Disclaimer: The article does not replace an evaluation by a physician. Information on this page is provided as an information resource only, and is not to be used or relied on for any diagnostic or treatment purposes.

  1. 1.Myofascial Pain Syndrome

    Myofascial pain syndrome is a chronic musculoskeletal syndrome caused by trigger points within muscle. Pressure on these points causes pain in the area around the point as well as in other body parts, a phenomenon known as referred pain.

    Resolution of pain is dependent on type of treatment.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    dizziness, spontaneous shoulder pain, pain in the back of the neck, tender muscle knot, general numbness
    Symptoms that always occur with myofascial pain syndrome:
    tender muscle knot
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  2. 2.Herniated (Slipped) Disk in the Upper Back

    The backbone, or spine, is made up of 26 bones called vertebrae. In between the bones are soft disks filled with a jelly-like substance. These disks cushion the vertebrae and keep them in place. Although people talk about a slipped disk, nothing actually slips out of place. The outer shell of the disk ruptures, and the jelly-like substance bulges out. It may be pressing on a nerve, which is what causes the pain.A slipped disk is more likely to happen due to strain on the back, such as during heavy lifting, and older individuals are at higher risk.

    The pain associated with a slipped disk usually goes away within six weeks. If the pain lasts longer, consult a doctor. They may send you to see a back specialist for an MRI of your spine, and surgery may be considered.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    upper back pain, neck pain, arm weakness, back pain that gets worse when sitting, upper spine pain
    Symptoms that always occur with herniated (slipped) disk in the upper back:
    upper back pain
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  3. 3.Diffuse Idiopathic Skeletal Hyperostosis

    Diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis (DISH) is calcification or a bony hardening of ligaments in areas where they attach to the spine. Ligaments are supposed to be flexible, so DISH can cause symptoms such as pain, stiffness, and restricted movement.

    DISH is a lifelong disease.

    Rarity:
    Rare
    Top Symptoms:
    joint pain, upper back pain, stiff neck, stiff back, trouble swallowing
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  4. 4.Thoracic Outlet Syndrome

    Thoracic Outlet Syndrome is the compression of the nerves and/or blood vessels that run through the upper chest. It can occur as a result of trauma, surgery, growths in the body, or just randomly.

    Resolves with treatment (30% relapse)

    Rarity:
    Rare
    Top Symptoms:
    pain in one shoulder, spontaneous shoulder pain, arm weakness, arm numbness, pain in one shoulder blade
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor

    Upper Back Pain Checker

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  5. 5.Osteoid Osteoma

    An osteoid osteoma is a benign (non-cancerous) tumor that usually develops in the long bones of the legs. The thigh bone (femur) is affected most commonly, although the bones of the hand or the spine can have occasional involvement. This condition is most often found in young people.

    Good prognosis, 90% chance that the condition will not come back. A short recovery time after surgery is expected.

    Rarity:
    Rare
    Top Symptoms:
    lower back pain, upper back pain, spontaneous back pain, back pain that shoots to the butt, severe back pain
    Symptoms that never occur with osteoid osteoma:
    hip pain, bilateral leg swelling, weakness in both arms, weakness of both legs
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  6. 6.Uterine Fibroids

    Uterine fibroids are noncancerous tumors in the uterus. They are common in women of childbearing age.

    Treatment ranges from medication to surgical removal of the fibroid.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    vaginal bleeding, pelvis pain, abdominal cramps (stomach cramps), painful periods, irregular period
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  7. 7.Psoriatic Arthritis

    Psoriasis is a skin disease that causes itchy or sore patches of thick, red skin with silvery scales. Some people who have psoriasis also get a form of arthritis (inflammation and swelling of joints) called psoriatic arthritis.

    This type of arthritis can be managed with treatment, and permanent damage can be prevented. However, the underlying cause (psoriasis) is currently incurable.

    Rarity:
    Rare
    Top Symptoms:
    shoulder pain, lower back pain, joint pain, upper back pain, hip pain
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  8. 8.Vertebral Osteomyelitis

    Infection of the spinal bones (Vertebral Osteomyelitis) is caused by the spread of bacteria through the blood from another body part that lands in the spine. It's typically caused by bugs named Staph. Aureus (40-50% of the time), streptococci (12%), e.coli (9%), and Pseudomonas aeruginosa (6%).

    6 weeks of antibiotics typically clears things up

    Rarity:
    Rare
    Top Symptoms:
    upper back pain, spontaneous neck or back pain, fever, foot numbness, upper leg numbness
    Urgency:
    Hospital emergency room

Upper Back Pain Treatments and Relief

Most cases of upper back pain are due to overuse of the muscles of the upper back, shoulders, and upper arms, and can thus be managed at home and treated like you would treat any muscle soreness. Severe or sudden-onset upper back pain cases usually require treatment by a physician.

At-home upper back pain treatments:

  • Rest: Resting the muscles of the upper back and avoiding exercises that strain them can reduce upper back pain and allow the muscles to heal.
  • Ice: Ice packs can dull upper back pain symptoms.
  • Heating Pad: Heating pads can also be used to dull the ache of upper back pain.
  • Tylenol (acetaminophen) or NSAIDs: Over-the-counter pain medications can dull pain in the upper back.
  • Stretches: Stretches can help loosen tight upper back muscles.
  • Massage: Massage of the upper back can help loosen tight muscles.
  • Posture: If you spend most of your day in a position that strains your upper back or neck muscles, working on posture can help reduce upper back pain long-term.

Professional upper back pain treatments:

  • Physical Therapy: Physical therapy regimens can help strengthen upper back muscles and other supporting muscles to assist in healing strained muscles.
  • Medication: Certain conditions that cause upper back pain symptoms can be treated with medications. For instance, medications that reduce muscle spasm can help with muscle soreness and certain spinal fractures require vitamin supplementation.
  • Surgery: In rare cases, upper back pain may require surgery. This is true for certain spinal fractures and diseases of the aorta.

You should seek help without delay if you have:

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Upper Back Pain

  • Q.Any fever today or during the last week?
  • Q.Turn your head toward the side of your body that is hurting. Lift your head up as someone else pushes down on your head. Does this cause greater pain in your upper body? (This is known as Spurling's test.)
  • Q.Do you feel a painful, tight knot or band in your muscle anywhere on the body?
  • Q.Have you experienced any nausea?

If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions, try our upper back pain symptom checker to find out more.

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Upper Back Pain Symptom Checker Statistics

  • People who have experienced upper back pain have also experienced:

    • 7% Rib Pain
    • 5% Rib Pain on One Side
    • 5% Chest Pain
  • People who have experienced upper back pain had symptoms persist for:

    • 34% Less Than a Day
    • 27% Less Than a Week
    • 21% Over a Month
  • People who have experienced upper back pain were most often matched with:

    • 12% Herniated (Slipped) Disk in the Upper Back
    • 7% Myofascial Pain Syndrome
  • Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from visits to the Buoy AI health assistant (check it out by clicking on “Take Quiz”).

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