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Upper back pain

Pain in the upper back is experienced in the neck and shoulders and can cause discomfort and stiffness of movement

Introduction to upper back pain

Upper back pain is a form of back pain or spinal pain, and is a much less common problem than lower back pain. Nevertheless, when it occurs, pain in the upper part of the spine can make the neck and shoulders stiff and uncomfortable, limiting movement.

Like lower back pain, many causes of pain in the upper back exist and often, the precise origin of the pain is not always clear. Mechanical disruption of joints and muscles of the neck and shoulders are perhaps the most common ‘non-specific’ causes, followed by muscle or joint injuries.

Sometimes, upper back pain can give very bad headaches, particularly if the pain is in the neck.

Causes of upper back pain

Just as with pain in the lower back, upper back pain can be the result of a number of different factors. These range from something as simple as bad posture, to sudden injury or trauma. In most cases, the pain is either caused by muscular injury or joint disruption (inflammation).

Muscular injury most often occurs in the muscles around the shoulder. The main joint of the shoulder, the glenohumeral joint, connects the upper arm with the torso. This joint is arguably the most maneuverable in the whole body – but this feature also makes it the most unstable.

To compensate for this vulnerability, the shoulder is made up of a number of strong muscles which support the joint, but allow it a wide degree of movement. These muscles cover the upper back and shoulder, and are very prone to injury which can in turn lead to pain.

Other causes of upper back pain include ‘wear and tear’ or arthritis of the spinal joints in the neck and thoracic (chest) vertebrae.

Symptoms of upper back pain

The symptoms caused by upper back pain can cause are very similar to those caused by lower back pain. In most cases, symptoms are not serious and are rarely a sign of a significant underlying problem. The most common complaints are:

  • a dull, aching pain
  • headaches
  • a pain which spreads across the shoulder blades
  • muscle stiffness or tension
  • pain which gets worse at night (especially when lying in bed)

However, in rare cases, where more serious symptoms are present, it may indicate a severe problem. These include:

  • weakness of the arms or legs
  • numbness in the arms or legs
  • incontinence

If any of these symptoms occur, you should contact your GP immediately.

Treatment for upper back pain

If your upper back pain is due to muscular injury, try applying an ice cold compress to the affected area - a packet of frozen peas being one of the easiest options. Applying a pain relieving gel containing conventional painkillers such as ibuprofen, or a herbal one such as arnica gel, can help reduce pain and restore movement in your upper back.

If pain is persistent or recurrent, you may wish to consult a physiotherapist, osteopath, chiropractor or acupuncturist. Treatment may include joint manipulation and manual movement so that it can be loosened and mobilised. The course of treatment will also include exercises to perform at home and throughout the day.

For all upper back pain, a course of painkillers will be most likely prescribed by your GP, to help ease comfort and to aid in the course of therapy.

Further reading:
Back pain
Back pain symptoms
Back pain causes
Lower back pain
Back pain exercises