BY DAVID BUICE
Back pain is a common cause for people missing work or school and suffering disabilities worldwide.
While pain in the lower back is the more common culprit, upper and middle back pain can be an issue because the bones there don’t flex and move as much as those in the neck and lower back.
Upper and Middle Back Structure
The upper and middle back, known as the thoracic spine, extends from the base of your neck to the bottom of the rib cage. It’s primarily composed of 12 vertebrae attached to the rib cage, along with spongy discs lying between the vertebrae that absorb shock as you move.
Sources of Upper Back Pain
Pain occurring in this area of the body may be caused by the following:
Muscle deconditioning and poor posture – While our muscles can be conditioned and strengthened through exercise, the opposite is also true. You can decondition muscles by not using them properly. One common source of muscle deconditioning and pain is slouching in a chair over a desk for prolonged periods, weakening muscles in the upper back.
Muscle overuse – This often occurs because of repetitious movement over a period of time, leading to muscle strain, tightness, and irritation.
Injury – Traumatic injury from things like a car accident, slipping and falling, lifting incorrectly, or even working out too hard can bring on upper back pain.
Herniated disc – While more common in the lower back, herniated discs may happen in the upper back as well. A spinal disc has a soft, jellylike nucleus surrounded by a rubbery exterior. A herniated disc occurs when some of the nucleus breaks through the disc’s exterior, irritating a nearby nerve. This irritation can lead to pain, numbness, or weakness in an arm or leg.
Osteoarthritis – This occurs when the cartilage that cushions and protects the bones wears down through aging, causing bones to rub together, triggering pain.
Myofascial pain – Pain in the upper back can also be caused by problems in the connective tissue of the back, what doctors call the fascia. This pain can start after an injury or overuse, and for reasons not fully understood, chronic myofascial pain may continue long after the initial injury.
In addition to these common causes, upper back pain, in rare cases, may be caused by conditions such as lung cancer, gallbladder disease, or a spinal infection.
The good news in all this is that in many cases, though not all, upper and middle back pain can be managed at home through a combination of rest, over-the-counter pain medications, the application of heat and ice, and exercises to strengthen back and stomach muscles.
However, you should seek immediate medical attention if the pain is chronic, accompanied by a fever, occurs after a serious accident or sports injury, or if you lose control of your bladder or bowels.
Back Pain – Risk and Prevention
Anyone can develop back pain, but certain factors put you at greater risk of having problems.
Age – Starting around age 30 to 40, back pain is more common as you get older.
Lack of exercise – Muscles in your back and abdomen that are weak and underused can contribute to back pain.
Being overweight – Those unneeded pounds you’re carrying around put extra strain on your back.
Disease – Some types of cancer and arthritis can contribute to back pain.
Improper lifting – Lifting heavy objects with your back rather than your legs can lead to back pain.
Smoking – Smoker’s cough can contribute to herniated discs, and smoking increases the risk of osteoporosis by decreasing blood flow to the spine.
Emotional/psychological conditions – Back pain seems to be more common among individuals prone to anxiety and depression.
You can reduce the chances of developing back pain by:
- Getting regular, low-impact aerobic exercise
- Exercising abdominal and back muscles to build strength and flexibility
- Losing weight
- Giving up smoking
- Being mindful of slumping and practicing good posture while standing or sitting
- Reducing stress through deep breathing and relaxation exercises or meditation