Upper Back Pain: What Causes It and How to Get Relief

Apr 24, 2024

Urgent Care

Upper Back Pain: What Causes It and How to Get Relief

Upper back pain can be a debilitating condition, affecting millions of people around the world. Whether it's from poor posture, muscle strain, or underlying medical conditions, the discomfort and limitations it brings can significantly impact daily life. According to the American Chiropractic Association, up to 70-85% of Americans experience upper back pain at some point. This ache between your shoulder blades and neck can make even simple tasks uncomfortable, significantly impacting your daily activities and overall well-being.

This blog discusses the causes and treatment options for upper back pain so you can take proactive steps to alleviate your discomfort and improve your standard of living.

What Is Upper Back Pain?

Upper back pain (thoracic spine pain) can affect the areas between your neck and the lower part of your rib cage. The thoracic spine refers to your upper and middle back, consisting of 12 small bones called vertebrae. These vertebrae make up the structure of your backbone. Each vertebra is linked to a pair of ribs in the thoracic spine. These ribs encircle your body and connect to a flat bone in the center of your chest called the sternum. Together, these components form your rib cage.

The upper back region has intervertebral discs that separate each vertebra. These discs play a crucial role in absorbing shock during movement. Additionally, the upper back consists of numerous muscles and ligaments that work together to maintain the stability of the spine. Various medical conditions or injuries affecting this area's bones, discs, muscles, and ligaments can result in discomfort and limited mobility.


Upper back pain can be classified in various ways, but two main categories are:

  • Joint Dysfunction: Patients with joint dysfunction often suffer from injuries or natural degeneration due to aging. This can involve problems such as torn cartilage, capsules in the joints, or even degenerative disc disease if the vertebrae are weakening.    
  • Muscular Irritation: It usually results from a lack of muscle strength or overuse injuries. The large upper back muscles connecting to the shoulder blade and back of the rib cage are particularly susceptible to tightness and strains. Poor posture can exacerbate this type of pain.

What Does Upper Back Pain Feel Like?

Pain in your upper back usually feels like:

  • Muscle stiffness or tightness   
  • Pain that radiates along the nerve   
  • An achy, sharp, burning, or throbbing pain   
  • Numbness, tingling, or weakness


Medical conditions and injuries that contribute to upper back pain include: 

  • Fractures: The bones in the thoracic spine sustaining a crack or break from an accident can cause pain.  
  • Strains and Sprains: Improper lifting or lifting heavy weights can injure tendons, muscles, or ligaments in your thoracic spine, shooting pain.  
  • Disk Problems: Tearing, bulging, or slipping of disks from their position in the spine can put pressure on the nearby nerve, causing sharp pain.  
  • Poor Posture: Standing or sitting crooked or bent can lead to misalignment of the spine, which can result in pain.
  • Spinal Stenosis: When the space around the spinal canal narrows, putting pressure on the nerve roots, thus causing pain.
  • Arthritis: Osteoarthritis (degenerative joint disease) causes upper back pain.

Risk Factors for Developing Upper Back Pain

  • Psychological stress  
  • Excessive lifting  
  • Low muscle tone    
  • Being overweight   
  • Participation in contact sports  
  • Smoking   
  • Poor posture or prolonged sitting 


Your provider will review your medical history and symptoms and ask questions about your pain's location, severity, and triggers. They may also test your muscle strength and reflexes and have you bend or lift your legs to see how it aggravates your pain.

If they suspect any injuries or underlying medical conditions, they may order the following tests for comprehensive diagnosis:

  • Blood Test: Detects genetic markers for some medical conditions that cause back pain.
  • Spine X-ray: Uses radiation to show clear images of thoracic spine bones.
  • Electromyography (EMG): Tests the muscles and nerves in your spine to detect nerve damage (neuropathy), which can cause tingling or numbness in your legs.  
  • Computed Tomography (CT) Scan: This scan uses X-rays and a computer to create 3D images of the bones and soft tissues in the spine.  
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) Scan: Uses a magnet and radio waves to create pictures of your thoracic spine's muscles, bones, tendons, and other soft tissues.

What are the Treatment Options?

Depending on the causes, symptoms, and severity of your pain, your provider may recommend any of the following treatment options: 

  • Medical massage  
  • Getting plenty of rest  
  • Heating pad to reduce pain and stiffness   
  • Over-the-counter pain medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)  
  • Ice pack to reduce pain and swelling

Tips for Controlling Upper Back Pain

For upper back pain relief, you must:

  • Practice good posture.
  • Support your back when sitting.
  • Set up your computer at the correct height so you don't need to slouch or bend.
  • Exercise regularly to strengthen your back.   
  • Take regular breaks from prolonged sitting or repetitive tasks.   
  • Stop performing activities that aggravate your back pain.  
  • Quit smoking, as smoking can decrease blood circulation to the spine, damaging the vertebrae and discs.  
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet.   
  • Follow proper lifting techniques to avoid strains and sprains.

When to Seek Medical Consultation?

It's essential to visit your healthcare provider if your discomfort:

  • Persists for a week or more.  
  • It is severe or causes muscle spasms.  
  • It causes numbness or tingling in your legs or buttocks.
  • Leads to other symptoms, such as weight loss, fever, and bladder/bowel problems.

Get Expert Care for Your Upper Back Pain at MI Express Urgent Care

If you are experiencing upper back pain and seeking relief, visit MI Express Urgent Care in Canton or Ann Arbor, MI. Our experienced urgent care professionals are dedicated to providing top-quality care for upper back pain, including treating underlying conditions and ensuring complete relief. Contact us today to learn more about our services.

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