Healthy Living

What Causes an Upper Back Pain?

What Causes Upper Back Pain?

Any pain or discomfort in and around the shoulders and upper areas of your back is referred to as upper back pain. Pain may occur due to a strain or poor posture over a period of time, or as a result of sudden injury or trauma. In recent times, the use of computers has lead to an increase in upper back pain among those who work on computers the whole day. An upper back pain may last briefly or can become chronic (long-term). Hence, to get the best out of your treatment, it is important to understand the reasons that cause your pain. 

An upper back pain refers to a condition that causes pain in the upper part of your spine. It is a rare condition that can result in a number of symptoms that disrupt someone’s normal health. It may worsen depending on the environment and activities you may be involved in. The condition is also referred to as a "stiff neck." Some of the symptoms of upper back pain include:

  • pain in the upper spine
  • stiffness of the neck
  • shoulder stiffness
  • tightness of the back
  • headaches
  • muscle spasms
  • pain while coughing, breathing, or sneezing since the spine is connected to the ribs
  • fever
  • tenderness to touch
  • a dull, throbbing, sharp, or stabbing pain

Some conditions that may put pressure on the spinal nerves may also cause an upper back pain. These conditions include:

Causes of Upper Back Pain

Pain in the upper back may be due to a host of different factors that are listed below.

Poor Posture

Having a poor posture is among the most common causes of upper back pain. Sitting or standing in the wrong posture can cause stretching or pressing of the spine tissues, which results in aching. Improper posture is sitting with shoulders hunched forward or sitting with a rounded back. In most cases, this may lead to a short-term upper back pain unless the person repeats doing the same posture. Another common cause of poor posture is working on the computer for long periods without taking breaks to stretch or walk around.

Another common cause of poor posture is working on a computer for long periods without taking breaks to stretch or walk around.

Sports Injuries

Sports injuries to the upper back tend to occur less frequently as that part of the back is supported and is also relatively immobile. However, sports injuries can be responsible for people to experience upper back problems, especially those that include any cardiovascular activities. It can occur in sports that involve the rotation of the torso like swimming, golf, tennis, skiing, and weight training that has a lot of body rotations. In these cases, a person is more likely to suffer serious back injuries, which may lead to long-term side effects. A warm-up before any sport can avoid these type of injuries.

Doing warm-up exercises before engaging in any sports can avoid these type of injuries.

Muscle Overuse

Muscle discs and ligaments help the body's flexibility. These tissues can be damaged if they are subjected to excessive body movements. The overuse of your back may cause excess friction between the discs, which can cause upper back pain. Muscle injury mostly occurs around the shoulder areas that are prone to injury and cause a lot of pain.

Excess Pressure on the Spinal Nerves

The spine provides enough support for the whole body, and should not be subjected to excess pressure. Excess pressure may result in the cracking of the joints, which in turn leads to an upper back pain. Lifting heavy loads is an example of an activity that can put excessive pressure on your nerves.


People who are overweight are at high risk of developing upper back pain. Their spinal discs have to support too much weight, which as a result can lead to excess tension on the back. Being overweight could also lead people to have less exercise, which will eventually lead to weaker muscles and less flexibility. By doing so, it can lead to a strain on their back.


Osteoarthritis is one of the most common diseases of the joints. It is sometimes called as the "wear and tear arthritis." Osteoarthritis is caused by obesity, certain injuries, and particularly aging joints. It is a condition that may arise as a result of the breakdown of cartilage, which is the one responsible for cushioning the spine facet joints. Having osteoarthritis may result in a chronic upper back pain that is continually recurring.


Too much exercising leads to the overuse of tissues, which can cause back pain. At the same time, people who lack exercise can also suffer the condition. Doing excessive or minimal exercises can both leave the spinal tissues weak, making them more prone to injury in the event of abnormal movements.


Smoking is known to affect the ligaments and cushions in the spine. It also interferes with the functioning of the ribs that are connected to the spine. As a result, it may cause upper back pain that builds up gradually.

Stress and Depression

Being stressed or depressed for a long time can also cause an upper back pain. Stress and depression both interfere with the normal functioning of the brain, which in turn affects the spine cells since they are interconnected. Worrying about financial matters or dealing with the loss of a loved one can cause tense shoulders and muscles, irritating the nerves and causing an upper back pain.

Carrying a Heavy Backpack

The risks of developing an injury to the upper back from carrying heavy backpacks are more common in kids and adolescents. The risk is doubled when the backpack is overloaded or is carried just across one shoulder. For this reason, some parents let their kids bring trolley bags instead of backpacks to avoid such back injuries.

Poor Lifting Techniques 

Always use the correct posture when you lift or pick something up in order to protect your spine. Improper lifting can overstress the back muscles causing pain. 

Trauma or Injury

Sudden trauma or injury to the upper back due to certain unfortunate events such as car accidents can cause fractured vertebrae in the spine or they may press on a spinal nerve, which can cause extreme pain.

Joint Dysfunction

When the joints that attach the ribs to the vertebrae fail to work properly, they become stiff and immobilized leading to an upper back pain.

Other causes

Upper back pain can be caused by other reasons such as having a gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), ulcers, or cardiac conditions such as angina.

The Bottom Line

Having an upper back pain is not nearly as common as lower back pain. In most cases, an upper back pain is not a cause for worry and do not lead to long-term complications. However, the condition can be prevented by avoiding the contributing factors. If symptoms persist for a prolonged period of time, seek immediate medical attention.

Pain in the upper back can be excruciating and can hamper a person’s functionality. It is essential to get to the bottom of it and confer with a doctor or a specific medical practitioner for a proper diagnosis and relief.