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Upper back pain

Overview of upper back pain

Upper back pain is classified as pain or discomfort in the area between your shoulder blades. This type of back pain can be mild or severe. It may be constant, or you may only notice it with activity.

Although back pain is very common, upper back pain is less common than lower back pain. This is because the bones in your upper and middle back are attached to your ribcage and are not as mobile as those in your neck or lower back.

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Upper back pain can start slowly and develop over time, or come on very quickly. Signs and symptoms of upper back pain include pain that is sharp, stabbing, dull, achy, or cramping. Some people also experience muscle spasms or headaches. Upper back pain can sometimes be severe and limit mobility.


One of the most common causes of upper back pain is poor posture. Those who sit at a computer for much of the day are especially at risk of having slumped or slouched posture that irritates the upper back.

Sprains or strains are additional causes of back pain. These injuries usually result from sudden, awkward movements during sports and other activities, and the pain often goes away within a few days.

Other causes of upper back pain involve spine conditions such as spinal arthritis, spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal), and degenerated, ruptured, or herniated discs. Osteoporosis can also cause upper back pain.

In rare cases, other medical conditions such as heart attacks or injuries to the lungs can cause referred pain in the upper back. You should call 911 if you notice any symptoms of a potential heart attack such as upper back pain accompanied by chest pain, shortness of breath, sweating, jaw pain, or nausea.


Upper back pain generally falls into two categories: joint dysfunction or muscular irritation.

Patients experiencing pain due to joint dysfunction generally either had a sudden injury or have natural degeneration from aging. For example, a joint’s cartilage or capsule could tear. If the vertebrae are weakening, it is possible that a degenerative disc disease could be present as well.

On the other hand, muscular irritation is almost always because of overuse injuries or a lack of strength. The large upper back muscles that attach to the shoulder blade and back of the rib cage are especially prone to strains and tightness. Poor posture will only add to this type of pain.

Risk factors

While upper back pain is often the result of acute trauma or repetitive motion injury, some factors will make you more susceptible:

  • Smoking
  • Being overweight
  • Excessive lifting or carrying
  • Participating in contact sports
  • Spending long hours at a computer (poor posture)
  • Low muscle tone


As with most back pain, preventing upper back pain is easier than curing it. There are many things you can do to keep your spine healthy:

  • Practice good posture as often as possible
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Exercise and eat a balanced, healthy diet
  • Use proper technique when lifting
  • Avoid smoking

If you work in an office and are staring at a computer for hours at a time, it is essential to take breaks to stretch and walk around. The muscle strain and fatigue of sitting at a desk add to poor posture and can make you more likely to experience upper back pain.

The information contained in this article is meant for educational purposes only and should not replace advice from your healthcare provider.