When Should I Worry About Upper Back Pain?

Reviewed on 11/12/2020

What Can Cause Upper Back Pain?

Upper back pain is most commonly a result of exercise or overuse inflaming the muscles. More seriously, it can be a sign of a torn ligament, fractured or compressed disks or vertebrae, or a pinched nerve.
Upper back pain is most commonly a result of exercise or overuse inflaming the muscles. More seriously, it can be a sign of a torn ligament, fractured or compressed disks or vertebrae, or a pinched nerve.

Upper back pain, also called thoracic spine pain, usually has a musculoskeletal origin and is related to poor posture or overuse injuries. 

Causes of upper back pain may include: 

  • Overworked muscles 
  • Injuries to the vertebrae
  • Damage to the vertebral discs
  • Wear and tear of cushioning between the vertebrae (with age)
  • Degenerative bone disease

When Should I Worry About Upper Back Pain?

Much of the time, upper back pain is not serious, but in some cases, it may be a sign of a medical issue that needs to be addressed. 

See a doctor if the upper back pain is: 

  • Sharp, rather than dull: Could be a sign of a torn muscle or ligament, or a problem with an internal organ in the back or side
  • Radiating to the buttocks or legs: may be a sign of nerve compression or damage
  • Associated with deep inhalations: could be a sign of an infection or blood clot in lung
  • Associated with pain in the chest or upper abdomen: could be a sign of problem with the aorta (the main artery that carries blood from the heart) or gallbladder

Also see a doctor if you have upper back pain accompanied by any of the following symptoms or any of the following underlying conditions: 

  • Trauma
    • Such as a motor vehicle accident or a fall from a height
    • If you are over age 50 and have a minor accident, see a doctor because even minor trauma may cause a fracture
  • Fever
    • May be a sign of infection
  • Numbness or tingling
    • May indicate nerve irritation or damage 
    • Can be a sign of a herniated disc, spinal stenosis, or sciatica
    • If left untreated, prolonged nerve irritation and damage can lead to permanent impairment
    • If numbness or tingling occurs in the groin or glutes, it’s called saddle anesthesia and is a sign of a serious nerve or spine condition
  •  Sudden weakness in the legs
    • May be caused by compressed nerves 
    • Sudden leg weakness could also indicate a stroke
  • Loss of bowel or bladder function 
    • Can be a sign of a rare and serious condition called cauda equina syndrome, in which the nerve roots in the lower end of the spinal cord have become compresses and paralyzed
    • Cauda equina syndrome is a medical emergency that requires immediate attention
    • May result from a herniated disk, fracture, tumor, spinal stenosis, or trauma to the spine
    • Symptoms of cauda equina syndrome may also include numbness and weakness of the legs
    • Loss of bowel or bladder function may also be a sign of serious nerve compression or a spine infection, such as discitis or meningitis
  • Foot drop 
    • Usually a symptom of a nerve problem, muscle problem, or a brain problem
  • Pain at night
    • Can be a sign of disc degeneration or a sprain, or something serious such as cancer or a tumor
  • Unexplained weight loss 
    • Could be caused by infection or a tumor
  • Prolonged pain (6 weeks or more) 
    • Most back pain gets better within six weeks; see a doctor if pain persists longer because there may be a more serious underlying cause
  • Medical history of cancer
    • Need to rule out spread (metastases) of cancer
  • Suppressed immune system
    • Need to rule out an infection as the cause 
  • Osteoporosis
    • Back pain may be caused by fracture due to weakened bones
  • Chronic steroid use 
  • Age over 70 years
    • Elderly people have an increased risk for infection, tumors, and abdominal causes of back pain
  • Prolonged use of IV drugs
    • Can make people more susceptible to infection

QUESTION

Nearly everyone has low back pain at some time during their life. See Answer

Health Solutions From Our Sponsors

Reviewed on 11/12/2020
References