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3 Things You Need to Know About Upper Back Pain

Published July 3, 2017    

Who knew that sitting in the same postural position for a considerable length of time without moving causes upper back pain? Who knew that lifting heavy objects or undergoing strenuous activities may sometimes lead to muscle spasms contributing to upper back pain? Both of these actions are referred to as muscle strain, which is one of two primary causes of upper back pain.

Why Do I Have Upper Back Pain?

Along with muscle strain, another core reason we can thank for our upper back pain diagnosis is joint dysfunction. This happens if you opt for fast food time and time again or maintain poor nutritional habits in general. Essentially, those habits affect the joints that attach the ribs to the vertebrae and can cause them to NOT work properly, become stiff or immobilized, therefore, causing you upper back pain.

Pain in your upper back, although less common than lower back pain, is just as hard to live with. From pain ranging from mildly uncomfortable to agonizing, it can make your 9 to 5 desk job or trying to sit still long enough to watch a movie nearly unfeasible. How about sleeping? — forget it. “I give up!”

Stress of any kind most often leads to both of these circumstances. When “they,” say, “Don't sweat the small stuff,” “they” really mean it.

Physical stress is more obvious to the eye, such as stooping over a computer for hours upon hours — you can feel the physical stress it has on your upper back.

Less obvious but equally as important is mental or emotional stress like worrying. This type of stress often results in tensed shoulders and shoulder blades, irritating nerves and causing pain in the upper back. And chemical stress such as eating unhealthy foods or inhaling smog or other toxins can also affect nerve function, resulting in pain.

If you are among the 3 million U.S. adults who experience pain on a daily basis, this article is literally screaming your name. With the help of experts, we are going to try to turn your hopelessness into actual hope because there's one thing stronger than fear (as well as pain) — HOPE.

Here's to hoping.

Upper Back Pain Treatment

Many immediately turn to medications to relieve any upper back pain symptoms and since most of the prescriptions include a pain killer, one would think it literally kills your pain.

The main problem with medicines, such as opioids, is that the traditional medical approach is to treat all upper back pain the same, regardless of the underlying cause. Since the pain can stem from muscle strain, nervous system irritation or rib joint malfunction, a one-size-fits-all approach to upper back pain treatment would seem to miss the mark, according to Choose Natural — the brainchild and collaboration between Steve Anson and Bill Esteb of — both are wellness researchers and certified chiropractors who find natural health solutions for pain relief.

These one-size-fits-all medications consist of:

  • Opioid pain relievers including Tylenol with Codeine. Lorcet, Lortab, or Vicodin (hydrocodone)
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agents (NSAIDs) including Advil, Motrin, Ibuprofen or Naproxen (Aleve)

Both narcotic pain relievers and anti-inflammatory medications may temporarily reduce your pain and inflammation, but they are only meant to relieve the physical pain in a temporarily sense. They do not work to heal strained muscles or malfunctioning joints. They wear off after a few hours and the pain returns so you then have to take more to feel the drug's effects. Meanwhile, they can sometimes interact with other medications you may be taking and can create unwanted side effects.

Rest is actually the first thing that should be tried in relieving upper back pain. Ever notice after a long day on your feet, or just being out and about, that when you're finally able to crawl into bed and at that moment your body screams in gratitude. “Ahhhhhh!”

This is not a coincidence.

Director of the Sleep to Live Institute in Mebane, North Carolina, Dr. Robert Oexman oversees the institute’s research studies and coordinates all activities of the Sleep To Live scientists, fellows, and affiliated sleep centers. He asserted, “The stages of sleep allow your muscles to relax in a way that can actually increase stress on our ligaments, spinal discs and spinal joints.”

“For many years sleep was seen as a passive activity that lazy people gave into and smart people learned to cheat and do with less,” Oexman added. “Current sleep research actually reveals that it’s smart to sleep! Sleep is an active process where the brain works to heal the body by producing hormones beneficial for repair and growth.”

Applying ice and hot packs can minimize pain. Ice packs can be placed on the pain area for 15-20 minutes until the pain subsides. Hot and cold packs can minimize inflammation as well as prevent pain progression.

Trigger point injections are shots of a local anesthetic, such as Lidocaine, that is administered directly to your painful areas (in this case, anywhere along your upper back). Like other pain medications, they only reduce pain temporarily without addressing any underlying issues, but if pursued properly over a number of sessions, the muscles will heal and symptoms should subside.

Upper Back Pain Alternative Treatment Options

Spinal manipulation, which is practiced by chiropractors, osteopathic physicians, naturopathic physicians and physical therapists involves the use of the practitioner's hands or a device to apply a controlled force to a joint of the spine. The amount of force applied depends on the form of manipulation used. The goal of the treatment is to relieve pain and improve physical functioning.

A Redford, Michigan resident and degenerative disc patient, Paul O' Malley, has a standing appointment at his local chiropractic office set for every two weeks. “He massages my back and spine allowing oxygen to flow in the middle of my spine and disc. His movement adds moisture and life allowing me to be a little more flexible than I would be without,” O' Malley revealed.

Massage therapy and other forms of bodywork can be of great benefit when it comes to retraining the brain and muscles to become rebalanced and reactive in healthy, pain-free ways. This application of pressure and friction relieves muscle spasms and decreases stress buildup within the muscles.

Massaging the skin, the body's largest organ sets up a chain reaction that produces a positive effect on all layers and systems of the body. It affects the nerves, muscles, glands, and circulation while promoting your overall well-being. After a Swedish massage, it's a good idea to give yourself time to relax and let the benefits sink in.

Massages are known for its ability to help the mind and body relax and that alone makes getting a massage something to look forward to.

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) utilizes electrical stimuli to relieve muscle spasms and pain relief. During a TENS treatment for upper back pain, electrodes are placed on the skin by means of a small, battery-powered machine normally the size of a pocket radio.

By using the TENS approach, you are stimulating the nerves blocks bringing relieve any pain. Another theory is that stimulating the nerves help the body produce natural painkillers called endorphins, which would leave you feeling less pain and little happier.

You can set the TENS machine for different wavelength frequencies, such as a steady flow of electrical current or a burst of electrical current, and for the intensity of electrical current. Your physical therapist, acupuncturist or doctor would normally determine the settings.

Ultrasound therapy, not to be confused with an ultrasound for expectant mothers, can also be used for increasing blood flow by the use of sound waves.

The effect of an ultrasound via an increase in local blood flow can be used to help reduce local swelling, chronic inflammation, and for some, promote bone fracture healing. The intensity or power density of the ultrasound can be adjusted depending on the desired effect.

Well peeps, there you have it. 

Of course, everyone is different. Everyone's body reacts to different treatment options in various ways so what we want you to do is simply comment below on what works for your upper back pain, what doesn't and any treatments you are curious about or want to try. Maybe, just maybe, you'll discover one that you never knew you needed. You're welcome. 

Last change: January 29, 2019