Common Upper Back Pain Questions

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My upper back hurts, but the pain just started. It doesn't hurt enough to go to the doctor. What can I do at home to help it?

  • Ice and heat: For the first 24 to 48 hours after you hurt your back, use ice to reduce swelling, muscle spasms, and pain. After that, switch to heat, which will help warm and relax sore tissues.
  • Over-the-counter medications: Tylenol or Advil are good options.

elderly woman on the phoneIf the pain begins to interfere with your daily activities you may want to see a doctor. When should I call the doctor?
Use your best judgment—if the pain persists for more than 2 weeks, consider scheduling an appointment. If the pain begins to interfere with your daily activities (if it's hard to go to work, for example), you may want to see a doctor. While many cases of upper back pain are caused by muscle strain or poor posture, it is possible that there's a more serious condition at the root of your pain.

Will I need surgery?
Depending on what is causing your upper back pain, you may need spine surgery. However, just 5% of patients with back pain actually require surgery. Before recommending surgery, your doctor will most likely have you try other treatment options, such as physical therapy or medication.

What types of surgery are used for back pain?
There are many types of surgery used for upper back pain because there are many causes of upper back pain. If you do require surgery, your surgeon will recommend a surgery that's best for your pain. Some common surgeries used for back pain are:

  • Discectomy: The surgeon will remove part of the intervertebral disc, which could be pressing on your spinal cord or other nerves and causing pain. Sometimes, the surgeon will need to perform a spinal fusion at the same time as the discectomy. The fusion aims to permanently stabilize that area of your spine, but not everyone who has a discectomy will need a fusion.
  • Foraminotomy: A surgeon uses a foraminotomy to make more room for your nerves that may have gotten compressed and are now causing you back pain. In this procedure, the surgeon will removes the foramen (the area where the nerve roots exit the spinal canal) to increase the size of the nerve pathway.
  • Laminectomy: A procedure for treating spinal stenosis by relieving pressure on the spinal cord. A part of the lamina (a part of the vertebra) is removed or trimmed to widen the spinal canal and create more space for the spinal nerves.

However, this is just a sampling of possible surgeries for upper back pain. To read about other surgeries, you can read Surgery for Upper Back Pain.

Updated on: 11/14/17
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Physical Therapy to Relieve Upper Back Pain
Jason M. Highsmith, MD
This article was reviewed by Jason M. Highsmith, MD.
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Physical Therapy to Relieve Upper Back Pain

A physical therapist can help you learn good posture, strengthen your spinal muscles, and improve your overall health.
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