What to Know About Upper Back Pain

Back pain and spine health are big topics of discussion. People suffer from back pain because of different injuries as well as strain and overuse. When we think about back pain, we most often consider neck and lower back pain but for many people, the pain stems from their mid-to-upper back.

The upper back or middle back is also known as the thoracic spine. 

This area of the body is designed to anchor your rib cage and protect the organs within your chest. 

The upper back is more resistant to injury and pain than the lower back and the neck, but it’s still possible that you could deal with an injury or pain in this area. 

If you deal with upper back pain, you likely know how debilitating it can be. Uncovering the causes can help you approach upper back pain in the best possible way. 

The following are some things to know about upper back pain and how to deal with it. 

What Causes Upper Back Pain?

There are two general things that usually happen when you have upper back pain. First, it could be the result of muscular irritation. 

Your shoulder attaches via muscles to the shoulder blade and the back of the rib cage.

If your upper back muscles develop strains or tightness, it can be hard to get rid of and fairly painful.

You could experience muscular irritation in the upper back because of a lack of strength or repetitive motions, also known as an overuse injury. 

The second category that often leads to upper back pain is joint dysfunction.

Joint dysfunction can occur because of an injury or degeneration that occurs because of aging. 

Upper back pain symptoms, along with the pain itself, can include tightness, stiffness, spasms, and tenderness. Headaches can also be a symptom. 

Specific causes of upper back pain or contributing factors may be:

  • Twisting
  • Whiplash or neck injury
  • Poor muscle tone—if you don’t use these upper back muscles enough, it can cause what’s called deconditioning. If you’re regularly sitting at a desk you can lose strength in your muscles and this weakening can eventually cause pain in the area because of irritation or strain. 
  • Being overweight
  • Bending frequently or lifting improperly
  • Overuse
  • Contact sports
  • Carrying a heavy backpack
  • Poor posture—when you slouch, it can cause your muscles to weaken, and over time, when you’re slouching your body pushes itself on the spine which can lead to pain. 
  • Traumatic accidents—car accidents, slipping and falling and working out too hard may lead to upper back pain
  • Working at a computer for a long time without taking breaks
  • Pinched nerve
  • A herniated disc, which can stem from a pinched nerve
  • Osteoarthritis—for some people the issue isn’t actually in the muscle but is instead in the joints and bones 

How to Prevent Pain In Your Upper Back

Some of the general things to keep in mind in your daily life that may help you avoid or reduce upper back pain are:

  • If you regularly sit or lie down, make sure you get up often and stretch. Move various muscle groups throughout your body, even if it’s just for a minute. 
  • If you’re working at your desk, make sure you’re taking stretch breaks.
  • If you’re going to exercise or do any strenuous activity, stretch or warm-up first. 
  • Regular massage can help alleviate tension in your muscles. 
  • Don’t carry a heavy purse or backpack. 
  • Be aware of your posture no matter what you’re doing—some people with posture issues find back support helps
  • If your pain is severe it may be a good idea to see a physical therapist who can help you gain strength in weak muscles
  • Wear supportive, comfortable shoes
  • Ice your back for 20 minutes on and 20 minutes off when it hurts to relieve inflammation

What Types of Stretches Help with Upper Back Pain?

If you work at a desk, have poor posture, or deal with upper back pain for other reasons, certain stretches and exercises may provide relief.

These include:

  • Neck rotation: When you rotate our neck in a counterclockwise and then clockwise direction repeatedly, it can help with upper back pain. You can also tilt your neck to the right while you’re standing or sitting and facing forward and feel a nice stretch in the trap muscle in between rolling your neck. 
  • Shoulder roll: This is a relatively simple move that can be great for alleviating some upper back pain. To do a shoulder role, stand with your arms by your side and then roll your shoulders forward in a circle, doing five full rotations. Then, roll your shoulders backward for five rotations, and repeat both two to three times. 
  • Overhead arm reaches: While you’re seated and facing forward with your feet on the ground, extend one arm up over your head and reach to the opposite direction. Continue to deeply bend your torso until you experience a stretch in your lat and shoulder. Repeat this several times and then do the same with your other arm. 
  • Chest stretch: Your chest can play a role in upper back pain and when you’re seemingly stretching your chest, it can actually help your back as well. Stand in a doorway and put your forearms on the frame. Bend your elbows at a 90-degree angle, and let your body weight fall forward just slightly so that you’re feeling a stretch in your chest and shoulders. Hold this stretch for around ten seconds and then repeat several times. 

Finally, depending on the specifics of your situation and how much it affects your life, you might want to see a chiropractor for upper back pain. 

If you see a chiropractor they may do a spinal manipulation, which is generally the most common type of chiropractic treatment.

This type of chiropractic adjustment can help reduce the restrictions in the muscles of your upper back. 

A chiropractor might also help you with adjusting the ergonomics of your work environment and developing better posture.