Upper Back Pain: How to Feel Better
Your upper back is less prone to problems than your lower back because there is much less range of motion in the thoracic spine. But that doesn’t mean it’s immune to injury or pain. While it is more resistant to the common injuries that occur in the lower back, the upper back can cause trouble for people with poor posture, especially in jobs that require standing or sitting in one position for long periods of time. Poor posture with sitting or standing combined with repetitive motions can cause minor muscle pains in the short term but can eventually lead to chronic muscular pain.
Upper back pain is typically described as burning, aching or sharp. If you try to ignore the pain, it can get worse, spread, and limit you further. Occasionally, the muscles around the immediate area of muscle pain tense up to protect that one spot leading to more widespread pain.
In addition to muscular pain arising from poor posture and overuse injury, upper back pain can also be caused by:
- ·Disc degeneration or arthritis in the thoracic spine
- Disc degeneration or arthritis in the cervical spine radiating to the midback or shoulder blades
- Cardiac issues
- Pancreatic or abdominal organ issues
- Inflammation of lung tissue
For most people who experience it, back pain surfaces after age 30 and can become more common with age. Being overweight and in poor physical condition makes matters worse. Carrying extra pounds in addition to lack of exercise puts more strain on your upper back. However, people who are active and fit tend to have stronger back and shoulder muscles, which can reduce the risk of injury. People who smoke can exhibit a smoker’s cough, which can strain back muscles and make those strains slower to heal.
Reducing the Pain
Many people who experience upper back pain are able to manage the symptoms without seeking medical attention. Rest, activity modification, ice/heat therapy, over-the-counter pain relievers and massage therapy could be enough to ease the pain. If the pain persists, physical therapy or acupuncture can resolve the symptoms. In cases where upper back pain persists despite these standard treatments, a medical professional can help with further diagnostic tests such as a focused physical exam, X-rays, MRIs or nerve studies. These tests may help in further diagnosing the pain which can then be treated by certain injections, directed therapy and medications. Fortunately, upper back pain rarely requires surgery except in cases where significant spinal deformity has developed.
Lifestyle changes can go a long way in helping to prevent upper back pain. Exercise such as strength training, stretching, going for walks or hikes and participating in non-contact sports can help condition the upper back and maintain proper spinal function. Practicing better posture especially at work will also help. Hold your head up straight with the ears directly above the shoulders, make sure you’re not slouching or letting your shoulders rise up toward your ears causing a shrugged position. Keep your chest pressed outwards and your shoulder blades slightly drawn toward each other. Always remember to bend the knees when lifting heavy objects. And, making sure your workstation is ergonomically correct is extremely important, particularly for those who spend long hours on a computer. Set a timer for yourself to take short breaks from your workstation to avoid prolonged poor posture.
Learn more about spine care at Ochsner