Upper Back Pain: Symptoms

Upper Back Pain Symptoms

Upper back pain is a type of discomfort or pain that is felt throughout the upper part of the chest in an area between the upper level of the lumbar area and where the neck starts from. It includes the part where the rib cage connects to the chest region and the shoulder blades.

Many people experience different symptoms of upper back pain at one time or the other in their lives. However, this pain isn’t as common as lower back pain, because the thoracic area doesn’t move as much as the lumbar region in daily activities.

The Symptoms of Upper Back Pain

The symptoms of the upper back pain vary depending on the causes of the pain in the first place. Upper back pain may manifest as acute, moderate or it might be chronic in nature. Acute pain lasts briefly while chronic pain might last months on end.

You might have a dull and throbbing pain, or a sharp and stabbing pain. The pain might be constant or it can occur during only particular activity, for instance when lifting an item or after sitting for a prolonged period of time in the same position.

The symptoms also vary depending on the structure of the back that is affected. The back is made up of nerves, muscles, ligaments and tendons, and can become inflamed due to various factors and conditions such as overuse, trauma and cancer or degenerative diseases.

Other associated symptoms include chest pain, or difficulty in breathing which might be a sign of an underlying condition.

Let us look at specific symptoms and what they represent:

Referred Pain

This is the pain that is caused due to trigger points within the muscle in the upper back. Any pressure on these points triggers pain in the area as well as in other parts of the back. This is called referred pain and it points to myofascial pain syndrome.

Associated symptoms of this condition include spontaneous shoulder pan, general numbness and pain in the back of the neck.

Dull, Prolonged Pain

Pain that is associated with a slipped spinal disc usually disappears after six weeks. A slipped disc might happen when you strain the back especially during heavy lifting. If the pain of a ruptured disc takes longer than necessary, you need to seek the services of a qualified doctor.

Associated symptoms include neck pain, arm weakness, back pain that is worse when you sit and upper spinal pain.

Difficulty in Movement

Upper back pain might be accompanied by symptoms of difficulty in movement of the shoulder, back and/or arms. Pain might also become worse when you breathe, cough or move your upper body.

Nerve-related Symptoms

When the cause of the pain is nerve-related, the pain might be accompanied with symptoms of tingling in arms and numbness.

Tight Knot in the Muscle Groups

Due to overuse of the muscles in the upper back, you might end up with a strain or a spasm. The result is a tight knot or a feeling of tightness of the muscles in the upper back. The knot is usually accompanied by pain when you move your shoulders or when you breathe.

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Pain when Breathing

Since your ribs are attached to your thoracic spine, upper back pain might manifest as a sharp pain when you take a deep breath.

When Should You See a Doctor?

Many people assume that upper back discomfort isn’t a huge deal. If the pain lingers for more than a few days, then you need to see a doctor.

Additionally, if you are on regular medications, then you need to be evaluated by a doctor. Moreover, if the pain limits your ability to perform daily tasks, then it is time to see the doctor.


Your upper back is made of various structures ranging from muscle to nerves. When these structures get affected, they become sore or don’t work as expected, which manifests in different ways as discussed above.

References and Further Reading

1. Why Does My Middle and Upper Back Hurt?
2. Thoracic back pain (upper back pain)
3. A prospective study of neck, shoulder, and upper back pain among technical school students entering working life.

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