Upper Back Pain

What is upper back pain?

Upper back pain is pain between your neck and your lower back.

In the center of your upper back are 12 bones called thoracic vertebrae. Muscles and ligaments help keep the vertebrae in their proper position. Ligaments are strong bands of tissue that connect one bone to another to form the joints.

What is the cause?

Back pain is usually caused by injuries to the ligaments or muscles that attach to the vertebrae. Upper back pain can result from:

  • Throwing, bending, or twisting
  • Lifting or carrying something heavy or reaching to put objects on a high shelf
  • Poor posture, especially from sitting at a desk or using a computer for a long time
  • A fall or car accident
  • Activities that overuse your upper back, such as rowing, or carrying a heavy backpack
  • Forceful coughing or sneezing
  • Scoliosis, which means that your spine curves from side to side rather than running straight down your back

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms may include:

  • Muscle spasms that feel like a knot or tightness in the muscle
  • Pain when you take a deep breath
  • Pain when your back is touched or when you move
  • Pain when you move your shoulders or bend your neck forward

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will examine you and ask about your symptoms, activities, and medical history. The exam may include different types of X-rays to look at the bones and soft tissue of your back.

How is it treated?

You will need to change or stop doing the activities that cause pain until your upper back has healed. The treatment for upper back pain depends on the cause. Your healthcare provider may recommend:

  • Rest. It’s best to try to stay active, so try not to rest in bed longer than 1 to 2 days or the time your provider recommends.
  • Exercise. Your provider may recommend physical therapy or exercises that you can do at home.
  • Medicine. Several types of medicines may help lessen back pain. Take all medicine as recommended by your healthcare provider.

How can I help take care of myself?

Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider. In addition:

  • Take nonprescription pain medicine, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen. Read the label and take as directed. Unless recommended by your healthcare provider, you should not take these medicines for more than 10 days.
    • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin, may cause stomach bleeding and other problems. These risks increase with age.
    • Acetaminophen may cause liver damage or other problems. Unless recommended by your provider, don’t take more than 3000 milligrams (mg) in 24 hours. To make sure you don’t take too much, check other medicines you take to see if they also contain acetaminophen. Ask your provider if you need to avoid drinking alcohol while taking this medicine.
  • Put an ice pack, gel pack, or package of frozen vegetables wrapped in a cloth on the injured area every 3 to 4 hours for up to 20 minutes at a time.
  • Put moist heat on the injured area for 10 to 15 minutes at a time before you do warm-up and stretching exercises. Moist heat may help relax your muscles and make it easier to move the injured body part. Moist heat includes heat patches or moist heating pads that you can purchase at most drugstores, a wet washcloth or towel that has been heated in the dryer, or a hot shower. Don’t use heat if you have swelling.
  • Do the exercises recommended by your healthcare provider.
  • Get a back massage by someone trained in giving massages.

Ask your provider:

  • How and when you will hear your test results
  • How long it will take to recover
  • If there are activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
  • How to take care of yourself at home
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them

Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup. Keep all appointments for provider visits or tests.

How can I help prevent upper back pain?

Here are some of the things you can do to help prevent upper back pain:

  • Do warm-up exercises before and stretching after activities.
  • Protect your back.
    • When you need to move a heavy object, don’t face the object and push with your arms. Turn around and use your back to push backwards so the strain is taken by your legs.
    • When you lift a heavy object, bend your knees and hips and keep your back straight. If you do a lot of heavy lifting, wear a belt designed to support your back. Avoid lifting heavy objects higher than your waist.
    • Carry packages close to your body, with your arms bent.
    • If you work on a computer, take frequent breaks to stretch your neck and back.
Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-10-21
Last reviewed: 2014-09-15
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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