What Is The Best Treatment For Upper Back Pain?

The 'New' Back Pain With Less Treatment Options But No Less Painful

11 possible treatments – but what is the best treatment for upper back pain?

Our team of pain sufferers ask the question and find out the answer may be simpler than you think….

Understanding The Likely Causes.

‘The Modern Disease’ as it is known, upper back pain frequently is caused by poor posture, lack of exercise and the increasingly unsupportive nature of ‘comfortable’ seating available today. But upper back pain can in fact be caused by a whole range of activities – from poor lifting, to a sudden jolt such as in a car accident, to carrying a pregnancy.

So….What is the best treatment for upper back pain? To a large extent, the best treatment depends on the nature/ reason for the pain in the first place. However, broadly speaking your treatment options could be broken down in to the following stages –

1. Initial treatment. Rest and relaxation is always the best treatment for upper back pain in the short term, unless you’ve just taken a blow to your back or been involved in an accident, in which case please skip to stage 3. If you haven’t got reason to immediately suspect a broken bone or serious injury, then a cold compress to reduce an inflammation followed by a dose of paracetamol/ acetaminophen to take the edge off the pain, is likely to be all that is required.

Following the ice treatment (and once any visible swelling has gone down), you can proceed to apply a hot towel or compress as the heat will then soothe aching muscles and help the healing process.

2. Realign Your Posture. Try consciously thinking about your posture when you sit down and when you move around. Simple adjustments to the way you sit in your office chair or how you slouch on your sofa at home may make all the difference. Consider also changing your pillows. Making them higher or lower will alter the angle of your neck when you sleep and can play an important part in your upper back pain. You can also help to prevent making the problem worse, by lifting objects from the knees with a correct lifting technique, taking regular breaks from any continued position (standing up if you work sitting down and sitting down if you work on your feet) and stopping any activity that seems to be causing your back pain.

3. Visit Your Local Doctor. If your back pain is still persisting after a few days of rest, then a visit to your local doctor would be very wise. This is for two reasons – firstly they can rule out actual physical injury such as a slipped disk or a degenerative spinal condition and secondly they can also check to make sure that your back pain is not merely a symptom of something else such as kidney failure or cancer.

It is very unlikely that upper back pain would be a symptom of another problem, but it is always worth making sure.

If you’ve suffered a physical injury, then the doctor should be your first port of call and then only after visiting the doctor should you go back to steps one and two.

4.Exercise. It is essential to try and keep your upper back/ neck moving at all times. With muscular pain, it is very easy to restrict your movements to avoid the painful sports, but unfortunately this doesn’t help at all. Any exercise, will help to improve blood flow around your body and will speed up the healing process.

5. Do Not Allow ‘Restrictions’ To Creep In. Again, it is essential to keep the body moving while it heals, and this is equally true for injuries to the upper back. Frequently an upper back injury will lead to a painful neck as well and so ensuring good rotation of the neck by gradually rotating it form left to right and then up and down, with help with your recovery.

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There are still options for treating upper back pain – not all will work for you, but following a process of trials will help you find the best treatment for your upper back pain as quickly and methodically as possible.

6. Physiotherapy. With upper back pain and shoulder pain, physio can really come in to it’s own. Manipulation of the muscles and nerves can be painful at first but really helps in the long run.

One of our members, Janet Spinks commented

“after a car accident in which my vehicle was shunted from behind, I was suffering with really bad upper back pain and some discomfort on my shoulders. The insurance company arranged for me to have some free physio and it really worked.

The physio measured my available movement and gave me some basic stretching exercises to do while I was there. She then measured my progress, before giving me an upper back/ shoulder massage. I was super stiff after the first session, but this soon freed up and the pain was greatly reduced.

I had a number of sessions, one a week. That was 14 months ago and I still get some discomfort very occasionally even now. But my husband has learnt how to offer a basic back massage as well (I don’t think he wanted me to pay for the extra physio sessions) and this does wonders. I am pretty much pain free.”

7. Acupuncture. Acupuncture doesn’t work well for many forms of pain, but for upper back pain, it seems to have a surprisingly strong track record. Perhaps because the upper spine is not easy to manipulate and there are not many other options, the needling of certain veins to stimulate blood flow and hasten recovery has proved a very useful tool. Depending on your physiotherapist, they may even offer this or a version of ‘dry needling’ in addition to physio as part of your treatment plan.

8. Sleep Well. Make sure your bed and mattress is comfortable and not contorting your spine. Consider getting a stiffer mattress if you have a fairly soft one as this may be the root cause of your back pain without you even knowing it. We can personally recommend a couple of orthopaedic ones should you wish. According to the sleep council (sleepcouncil.co.uk), you should look to change your mattress at least every seven years. The importance of a correct posture in sleep is often massively underestimated as you could be lying in the one position for 7-8 hours of your day. Poor posture even if you can sleep without too much pain, can lead to you waking in far more discomfort. We address the subject of getting the right sleeping position here, but the essence of it is about keeping your spine well supported and straight throughout. 

The Perfect Sleeping Position –


9. Nerve Stimulation. Something like a TENS machine may have a role to play if nothing else has worked for you. These machines work by stimulating nerves around your body. They are typically more often applied to lower back pain, but again at our face to face meetings, I have heard cases where these have really worked well. We look at TENS machines in more detail here.

10. Pain Injections. If all other options have failed, then perhaps the only pain relief may lie in having analgesic injections. These will not cure your back pain, but may help to control the pain when nothing else will.

11. Surgery. It is quite unlikely that this will help upper back pain developed as a result of poor posture, but where the cause is an accident or impact to the spine, corrective surgery may be the only answer.

The Final Word –

Upper back pain is not as common as lower back pain and therefore is not always treated as thoroughly.

However, there is a clear process to follow with 11 potential treatment options. What is the best treatment for upper back pain?

This really depends on the reason for the pain in the first place. Physio in this case, has a lot of support and evidence in backing up it’s effectiveness, not least because it can add massage therapy and some light acupuncture to your treatment plan, making it a convenient multi-treatment stop.

It is not cheap however (depending on who you go to see), so it is always worth exploring the more traditional options of rest, followed by a cold compress to reduce the inflammation and regular hot ones once the swelling has gone down, to aid the healing process.

You can also try adopting many of the physio techniques and use these at home to fast-track your progress and save money.

As with all back pain, you can make a difference to it simply by adopting better posture and potentially finding a more comfortable bed.

There is absolutely no reason why someone should suffer with upper back pain unless it is caused by an injury or a pregnancy and even then, with well chosen treatments, this pain can be minimised if not eradicated altogether.

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