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Upper back pain

Diagnosis of upper back pain

The upper and middle back have 12 vertebrae that support the upper body and head, and protect the central nervous system. Each of the vertebrae is separated by discs, and the spine is also supported by muscles and ligaments.

The source of your pain could be related to any of these components. To obtain a diagnosis, your doctor will take a thorough medical history and ask about your work, physical activities, and symptoms.

After a physical examination, your doctor may also order an imaging test such as an x-ray, MRI, or CT scan to rule out injuries like a broken bone or herniated disc.


Treatment for upper back pain will depend on the cause, risk factors, and medical history. The goal of upper back pain treatment is to relieve your pain and, if possible, treat the underlying cause and prevent further injury or re-injury.

Many cases of upper back pain go away on their own within a few weeks with over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medicines, stretching, hot and cold therapy, and massage.

If you have severe or persistent upper back pain, your doctor at Dignity Health may prescribe stronger pain relievers, physical therapy, or a back brace. A back brace and exercises to strengthen the back muscles can help prevent future problems. Generally, surgery is a last option for cases that do not resolve with other treatments. The need for surgery is very rare for upper back pain.


There are many things that you can do at home to control your upper back pain. One of the simplest things to do is maintain good posture. Try to avoid slouching when possible. Reducing stress and finding ways to change focus are also helpful tactics.

A combination of rest, over-the-counter pain medications, and using a heating pad or ice pack can help reduce swelling, relax muscles, and promote healing. Do not rest for too long before slowly easing back into activities.

One of the best things you can do for recovery as your back pain begins to diminish is exercise. Targeted exercises that strengthen and stretch your back, shoulder, and stomach muscles will help to decrease your chance of re-injury, improve your posture, and ultimately reduce pain.

It is important to remember that healing takes time, and no one exercise or activity will immediately stop your upper back pain. Together, you and your doctor will find which combination of exercises, medications (if necessary), and other treatments will work best for you to set you up for a quick recovery.

When to see a doctor for upper back pain

Most cases of upper back pain are temporary and resolve on their own with rest, ice, and gentle stretching. If your upper back pain is severe and limits your activities, gets worse over time, or does not improve within a few days of at-home care, consider speaking with a doctor.

In rare cases, upper back pain can be a symptom of a more severe or even life-threatening condition. For example, heart attacks can cause pain that moves to the upper back. Other rare but potentially serious causes of upper back pain include aortic aneurysm, pneumothorax (collapsed lung), and compression of one of the vertebrae.

You should seek emergency medical care if:

  • Your upper back pain was the result of an injury, such as a fall.
  • Your upper back pain is accompanied by weakness in your arms or legs, loss of bowel or bladder control, or numbness or tingling down your arms or legs, stomach, or chest.
  • You have upper back pain with chest pain, shortness of breath, sweating, jaw pain, or nausea.

Our expert orthopedic specialists are here to help you manage upper back pain and return to your activities as soon as possible. Find a Doctor at one of our locations today

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