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What is Upper Back Pain?

Although upper back pain is slightly less common than lower back pain, it is still a relatively common condition.

The upper back, also called the upper thoracic spine, comprises the portion of the vertebrae that connects the top of the rib cage, between the shoulder blades and the base of the neck. Most upper back pain typically concentrates around the shoulders, in between the shoulder blades, and lower neck area.

While most instances of upper back pain resolve on their own, some require a physician’s diagnosis and treatment. If your upper back pain doesn’t go away with within 1-2 weeks, contact your doctor for further workup.


Upper back pain has several potential sources. Some common causes can include:

  • Injury – Certain forces caused by a motor vehicle collision, movements and activities that involve heavy or overhead lifting, slip & fall accidents can all cause injury to the structures in the thoracic spine.
  • Bulging or Herniated discs – When the cartilage discs between your vertebrae become damaged, it causes the jelly-like substance that is contained within the disc to extend beyond its normal position. This can lead to painful inflammation and compression of sensitive nerves.
  • Scoliosis – an abnormal sideways curvature of the spine
  • Compression fractures
  • Aging – advancing degenerative osteoarthritis of the spine

There may be other conditions causing your upper back pain. Depending on your medical history and the nature of the pain, your physician will be able to provide a more complete diagnosis.


Common upper back pain symptoms include:

  • Pain: Burning, shooting or aching
  • Muscle spasms
  • Loss of mobility
  • Tingling, numbness, or weakness

In serious cases, upper back pain may itself be a symptom of much more serious conditions that can cause paralysis. If you are having back pain that is not resolving on its own within a few days of self-care or develop difficulty breathing, issues with balance, or had a recent illness followed by an onset of back pain, contact your doctor for further workup.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Your doctor will likely diagnose your upper back pain after getting an updated medical history and conducting an examination. This should help the doctor determine the source of your pain. Your doctor may also order imaging (possible x-ray or MRI) of your spine to further evaluate.

For minor thoracic (upper) back pain, you can generally find relief with ice or heat therapy, light stretching exercises, maintaining good posture, and taking a short course of over-the-counter pain medication. Many find that chiropractic care can also be very effective for thoracic pain. Other effective treatments can include massage therapy, physical therapy, and acupuncture.

For the more severe cases of upper back pain, your doctor may recommend injections and even surgery. Make an appointment if your upper back pain is not resolved by conservative measures, or if it has lasted more than a couple of weeks.