Upper back pain is a common problem that affects millions of people around the globe, each of us differently.
The upper back is also called the thoracic spine that covers the area from your neck down to your lower back. The muscles in this region work together to help keep you upright and stable. When these muscles are strained or injured, they can cause pain and discomfort.
This article puts together a list of the top ways to help you get rid of upper back pain and when it's time to see a specialist.
Reasons for Upper Back Pain
Pain in the upper back can be caused by any number of issues, including:
- Muscle strain or injury
- Poor posture
- Bad sleeping habits
- Lifting improperly / Carrying something too heavy
- Contact sports
- Neck injury or whiplash
- Overuse injuries such as tennis elbow, carpal tunnel syndrome, rotator cuff injury
- Stress, Anxiety, Depression
- Constant phone use and neck tilting forward
- Spinal stenosis
- Nerve damage and compression
- Herniated discs
- Spinal cancers
Many of these causes of upper back pain can be treated naturally. For more serious or chronic pain, options include medications and seeking medical attention.
How to Relieve Upper Back Pain with Natural Remedies
Here are some of the top natural remedies to help get rid of upper back pain.
1. Exercise and Stretch
Regular exercise is one of the best things you can do if you have upper back pain. It helps strengthen your core muscles, loosen tight muscles, and improve flexibility. It also increases circulation, which reduces swelling and improves range.
The main types of exercises and stretches to perform are those that will help with increasing your range of motion and strengthening your upper back, neck, and shoulder muscles.
Here are some of the best exercises and stretches to perform for your upper back:
- Overhead Arm Reach - Sit in a chair with your feet flat on the floor. Hold your right arm straight up and reach towards your left shoulder. Repeat 10 times on both sides. You'll feel the stretch in your back and shoulder.
- Chair Rotation - Sit in a chair with your feet flat on the floor. While keeping your legs still, rotate your upper body to the right slowly as far as you can and hold for 5 seconds. Then rotate to the left side for 5 seconds to complete 1 sequence. Repeat the sequence 3 more times.
- Backward Shoulder Rolls - Stand with your feet hip width apart, arms by your sides, and head straight. Roll your shoulders backwards 5 times in a slow circular motion. Then roll your shoulders forwards 5 times to complete 1 sequence. Repeat the sequence 3 times.
- Shoulder Blade Squeezes - Stand with your feet hip width apart, arms by your sides, and head straight. Squeeze your shoulder blades towards each other and hold for 5 seconds. Repeat 5 more times.
- Thoracic Extension - Sit in a chair that doesn't have a backside that reaches above your mid-back. While sitting in your chair, let your upper body and arms fall backwards over the chair's back. Slowly extend your arms back further to feel a deeper stretch. Hold for 5 seconds and repeat 3 times. This extension can also be performed lying on a foam roller on the ground.
When starting any exercise program, it’s best to start slowly and build up intensity over time. (Easier is always better at the start.) If any exercises or stretches aggravate your pain, stop immediately. Pushing through pain could lead to further injury and is never a good idea.
2. Maintain a Good Weight
Watching your weight can also help relieve upper back pain. If you're overweight, a larger belly will put strain on your lower back and spine. This will cause your spine to curve forward and your upper back to become rounded.
Losing weight will help reduce stress on your back and spine. It may also help correct any posture problems that could be contributing to your upper back pain.
Staying active, even if it's just walking around the block, can help keep your weight under control. As you feel more comfortable, you can ramp up to more exercising.
3. Acupressure and Acupuncture
Acupressure and acupuncture are two forms of traditional Chinese medicine used to treat upper back pain.
Acupressure involves applying pressure to specific points on your body using your fingers. The theory behind this type of treatment is that when you apply pressure to these areas, they send signals to other parts of your body to relax.
Acupuncture uses needles inserted into certain points on your body to stimulate nerves and release endorphins, which are chemicals that relieve the pain you're experiencing.
Benefits of Using Acupressure to Relieve Upper Back Pain
Acupressure comes with a number of benefits:
- Relieves muscle tension
- Reduces inflammation
- Improves blood circulation
- Reduces swelling
These benefits make acupressure an excellent option for people who suffer from upper back pain.
How to Use Self-Acupressure Techniques for Upper Back Pain Relief
To use self-acupressure techniques for upper back pain relief, you'll need to apply pressure on these pressure point locations:
- Triple Energizer 3 (TE 3) Point: This pressure point is located on the back of your hand in the groove between your 4th finger and pinky. Massage the pressure point and apply pressure for 5 seconds.
- Large Intestine 4 (LI 4) Point: Another pressure point on your hand, this pressure point is on the web between the thumb and index finger. When you bring these two fingers together, you’ll notice a bump on your hand. Massage the point and hold for pressure for 5 seconds.
- Gallbladder 21 (GB 21) Point: On the top of your shoulder, measure the distance of two fingers from the base of your neck. Massage the point for a few seconds and apply pressure on the point for 5 seconds.
These are the main pressure points that can help provide relief for the upper back, shoulder, and neck. You can repeat the self-acupressure process several times during the day whenever you think about it.
Acupressure products like the Kanjo Memory Foam Acupressure Mat and Pillow Set target and activate several acupressure points at the same time. The acupressure pillow stimulates the neck and upper back. The Kanjo Vibrating Acupressure Pillow offers additional vibration settings at different intensity levels to relax the muscles.
4. Ice and Heat Therapy
The best way to use ice or heat for upper back pain relief is by taking advantage of their cooling and warming properties.
In the first 48-72 hours when you experience upper back pain, cold therapy can be especially helpful to temporarily numb the painful area, and reduce inflammation and swelling. Ice packs can be applied directly to the painful area.
After using cold therapy, you can begin heat therapy with a heating pad to help increase blood flow and decrease inflammation. The heat will help speed up tissue healing and loosen muscle stiffness.
5. Sleep Positions
If you have sleep problems due to your upper back pain, try changing your sleeping position and using pillows with support.
The most recommended sleep position if you have upper back pain is to sleep on your back. This position will allow your spine to stretch out naturally without putting any strain on your back muscles.
Adding a pillow below your knees will help keep your spine's natural curve that will help our lower back relax. Your legs will be able to bend more naturally and allow your body to rest in a neutral position.
Additionally, the pillow your head and neck rests on should be firm but soft enough to provide comfort. A good pillow will adapt to the shape of your head and neck to help relieve stress on your neck and shoulders.
If a pillow is too firm, it could cause neck discomfort because you lose the natural angles and heights of your neck. If a pillow is too soft, it may not offer adequate support.
Over the Counter (OTC) Medicine
There are many over the counter medications available that may help relieve some symptoms associated with upper back pain.
These include Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB).
OTC pain relievers should only be used for short-term relief. If you've been taking them for three months or longer, it's time to see a doctor to determine if there are other medications that would work better for you.
Upper Back Pain Differences From Other Pain Areas
Upper back pain can also feel similar to other types of pain, so it's important to know some of the symptom differences from pain in common areas that can mimic upper back pain.
Difference Between Neck Pain and Upper Back Pain
Neck pain and upper back pain will have some differences in how they affect your daily life. Both types of pain can make it difficult to move around, eat, or even sit down comfortably, but there are some different symptoms that will occur.
Neck pain will be felt in the neck area and upper back pain will be felt in the upper back, but that's not the only areas you'll feel the pain.
When it comes to neck pain, you may also experience these pain symptoms:
- Numbness or Tingling Arms
- Shoulder pain
For upper back pain, you may also have these symptoms:
- Numbness or Tingling above or below your knees
- Sharp and shooting pain from your lower back, to buttocks, to thighs, and potentially down to your calf and toes.
Difference Between Shoulder Pain and Upper Back Pain
There are many similarities between shoulder pain and upper back pain as they're in the same general areas, but there are also several key differences.
The main difference is that shoulder pain tends to be more localized than upper back pain. This means that when you're having shoulder pain, you might notice the pain in more specific areas than a larger general area of the upper back.
Upper back pain is also commonly between the shoulder blades, while shoulder pains are on the top or outside parts of the shoulder.
Depending on the type of shoulder pain you have, you may have a limited range of motion in your arm. When it's just upper back pain, you should have some range of motion with your arms.
Difference Between Under Shoulder Blade Pain and Upper Back Pain
A major difference between under shoulder blade pain and upper back pain is that under shoulder blade pain stays in the area, while upper back pain can radiate to other parts of the body.
Upper back pain can radiate down the back and legs, and won't be tied to a specific area. This makes it easier to tell where the pain is coming from.
When to See a Doctor or Specialist
Upper back pain can be accompanied by other symptoms like headaches, nausea, dizziness, fatigue, difficulty breathing, chest pains, or arm weakness. These symptoms indicate that something else might be wrong and it is time to see a doctor.
The doctor will perform tests to find out what is causing these symptoms. They may also order x-rays, blood tests, MRI or CT scans, an ultrasound exam, or other advanced tests.
This information will help the doctor identify the source of your problem and recommend treatment plan options. Surgery is usually a last resort for those who have tried all conservative treatments and still cannot get rid of their pain.
Physical therapists and chiropractors can also help treat chronic upper back pain. Both physical therapy and chiropractic care are safe and effective ways to treat upper back pain.
Physical therapy focuses on improving strength, flexibility, balance, coordination, and posture. Chiropractic care helps correct spinal misalignment and restore proper nerve function.
Final Thoughts on Upper Back Pain Relief
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Upper Back Pain Relief FAQs
How long does it take for upper back pain to go away?
Upper back pain usually goes away after 2 weeks. However, healing time can differ from person to person depending on factors like age and severity. Some people say that they feel better within a few days, while others need up to 6 weeks before feeling completely healed.
How do you massage your own upper back and shoulders?
You can massage your own upper back and shoulders by lying on a foam roller on the floor. Position the foam roller on your upper back. Slowly roll up and down, allowing the foam roller to massage your back and shoulders. You can perform a similar action with a tennis ball.
How do you get a deep knot out of your back?
To get a deep knot out of your back, it's best to see a massage therapist who can work to relax the muscle knot in the hard-to-reach area of your back. If you want to try to self-massage the area, lying on a foam roller or tennis ball on your back can help.
What is the best massage for upper back pain?
Trigger point therapy is the best type of massage for upper back pain because it addresses the underlying cause of the pain. Trigger points are small knots of muscle that are often found along the spine. Other good options to help relieve upper back pain are deep tissue massages and acupressure.
Can air be trapped in your back?
The feeling of "air" in your back is most likely due to gas and gastrointestinal problems that have radiated to your back, which causes the pain you're feeling. You can relieve this kind of pain through various methods, including exercises, stretches, ice and heat therapy, and massages.
- Spine Universe: https://www.spineuniverse.com/conditions/upper-back-pain
- National Library of Medicine: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5563410/
- Healthline: https://www.healthline.com/health/fitness-exercise/upper-back-pain-exercises
- Harvard Health: https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2021/11/researchers-pinpoint-how-acupuncture-targets-inflammation/
- University of Rochester Medical Center: https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?ContentTypeID=1&ContentID=4460
- Spine Health: https://www.spine-health.com/conditions/upper-back-pain/early-treatments-upper-back-pain
- Elite Spine and Health Center: https://www.elitespinehouston.com/blog/how-to-get-rid-of-upper-back-pain