How Do I Relieve Upper Back Pain?

Reviewed on 6/7/2022
Woman with upper back pain touching her own shoulder
Remedies and treatments for upper back pain may include gentle stretching, over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers and anti-inflammatory drugs, ice, heat, posture exercises, prescription medications (anti-inflammatories, muscle relaxants, opioid pain relievers, etc.), physical therapy, acupuncture, chiropractic manipulation, and surgery.

Movement can often help relieve upper back pain, and working to strengthen back, abdominal, and leg muscles may help prevent back pain from occurring. 

The upper back (thoracic spine) is the part of the back below the neck (cervical spine) and above the lower back (lumbar spine). The upper back is the most stable part of the spine and range of motion in the upper back is limited because of the spine’s attachments to the rib cage.

Treatment to relieve upper back pain may include:  

  • Home remedies
    • Gentle stretching
    • Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers and anti-inflammatory drugs to reduce discomfort 
    • Ice to reduce pain and swelling
    • Heat to improve mobility and relieve stiffness
    • Posture exercises to improve the way you stand or sit
      • Imagery
        • Imagine there’s a cord passing through the body from the ceiling to the floor and that cord is being pulled upward, slightly lifting the chest and ribcage
      • Chin tuck
        • Sit in a chair with feet flat on the floor and shoulders relaxed and down
        • Pull the chin in toward the neck
        • Count to five, then relax, and repeat 10 times.
      • Shoulder blade squeeze
        • Place hands on the thighs and keep shoulders down, then slowly squeeze the shoulder blades together
        • Count to five, then relax, and repeat three or four times.
      • Upper back stretch
        • Raise one arm to shoulder level, directly in front of you
        • Bend that arm at the elbow and grasp that elbow with the opposite hand. 
        • Gently pull it across the chest and hold for 20 seconds and repeat three times on each side
  • Prescription medications
    • Anti-inflammatories
    • Muscle relaxants
    • Antidepressants if depression is suspected as playing a role in the pain
    • Opioid pain relievers for short-term use for severe pain
    • Anticonvulsants for pain cause by nerve damage
    • Trigger point injections
  • Physical therapy
  • Acupuncture
  • Chiropractic manipulation
  • Surgery in severe cases 
    • Usually due to an issue with spine, such as a herniated disc, vertebral fracture, or deformity
      • Kyphoplasty or vertebroplasty
      • Spinal laminectomy/spinal decompression
      • Microdiscectomy

Most cases of upper back pain will go away within one to two weeks. Resume activities gradually.

What Are Symptoms of Upper Back Pain?

Symptoms of upper back pain may include: 

  • Pain that ranges from muscle aches to shooting or stabbing pain
  • Limited flexibility 
  • Limited range of motion
  • Inability to stand straight
  • Tenderness to touch
  • Headache

If upper back pain is related to the bones, nerves, or discs of the thoracic spine, symptoms may also include:

  • Pain in the lower back
  • Pain down the legs
  • Numbness or weakness in the legs
  • Bowel or bladder incontinence 

What Causes Upper Back Pain?

Caused of upper back pain include: 

  • Soft tissue injuries
  • Muscle tension 
    • Poor posture 
    • Looking downward for long periods
    • Text neck
    • Twisting
    • Lifting improperly
    • Overuse
    • Repetitive movements
    • Contact sports
    • Carrying too heavy a load
    • Wearing an overloaded backpack

In elderly people, additional causes of upper back pain include:  

Risk factors for developing upper back pain include: 

How Is Upper Back Pain Diagnosed?

The cause of upper back pain is diagnosed with a patient history and physical examination of the back. Tests used to help determine the cause of upper back pain may include: 

Reviewed on 6/7/2022
Image source: iStock Images