Upper Back Pain Center

Thoracic SpinePain in the upper and/or mid back is less common than lower back or neck pain. The upper back is the region below the cervical spine (neck) and above the low back (lumbar spine). The upper back is called the thoracic spine, and it is the most stable part of the spine. The range of motion in the upper back is limited because of the spine’s attachments to the ribs (rib cage).

What are the symptoms of upper back pain?
Upper back pain is usually caused by soft tissue injuries, such as sprains or strains, muscle tension caused by poor posture, or looking downward for long time periods (eg, texting, cell phone use).

Symptoms may include:

  • Pain
  • Tightness
  • Stiffness
  • Muscle spasm
  • Tenderness to touch
  • Headache

Since the vertebral bodies of the thoracic spine attach to the ribs, some patients experience pain when taking a deep breath, coughing or sneezing.

What causes or contributes to upper back pain?
An episode of upper back pain can be triggered by different movements and activities, including:

  • Twisting
  • Excessive bending
  • Whiplash or other neck injury
  • Lifting improperly
  • Poor muscle tone
  • Overuse, repetitive movements
  • Contact sports
  • Carrying too heavy a load
  • Wearing an overloaded backpack
  • Smoking
  • Being overweight

Poor posture in general, or working at the computer for a long time without taking a break to walk around and stretch can contribute to upper back. Both muscle fatigue and muscle strain, which often result from poor posture, can trigger the pain.

Is upper back pain serious? What can I do about it?
In most cases, upper back pain is not a cause for worry; however, it can be uncomfortable, painful, and inconvenient. Furthermore, if pain develops suddenly and is severe—such as from an injury (eg, fall)—and, certainly if pain and symptoms (eg, weakness) progressively worsen you should seek medical attention.

In general, the following home treatments may help relieve upper back pain.

  • Short-term rest
  • Gentle stretches
  • Over-the-counter medication, such as ibuprofen, (Motrin®), naproxen sodium (Aleve®), or acetaminophen (Tylenol®). Take with food, and do not take more than the recommended dose.
  • Ice (to reduce pain and swelling). Use a commercially available cold pack or fill a plastic bag with ice and seal it; then wrap it in a towel. Apply to the painful area for 20 minutes every 2 to 3 hours for the first 2 to 3 days.
  • Heat (after the first 72 hours). After applying moist heat, gently stretch the muscles to improve mobility and relieve stiffness.

Your doctor may prescribe medications, such as a muscle relaxant or perform trigger point injections to help break up muscle spasms. He/ she may also recommend physical therapy to increase flexibility, mobility and relieve pain. Other therapies your doctor may suggest include acupuncture and chiropractic care.

Most cases of upper back pain resolve in 1 to 2 weeks without further treatment. Resume your normal activities gradually, when you can perform them without pain. Don’t rush things, though: you could interfere with your recovery and risk re-injury.

As always, sudden or severe pain should be addressed immediately.

Schiffert Health Center. Virginia Tech Department of Student Affairs. Upper Back Pain www.healthcenter.vt.edu. Accessed June 23, 2015.


Updated on: 10/12/15