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Why Does My Body Hurt Series: What’s Wrong With My Upper Back?

Why Does My Body Hurt Series: What’s Wrong With My Upper Back?

Back pain is notoriously hard to diagnose and treat, and upper back pain can make a long shift especially unbearable. When you start to struggle with looking down at patient charts or constantly have the urge to crack your upper back, it’s high time to look for some at-home solutions.

Common activities in the nursing profession such as holding awkward positions during surgeries, pushing and pulling patients in wheelchairs or hospital beds, and hunching over computers or desks all can put unnatural stress on the upper back. As with most strategies, the first step is to understand the problem. Where is this upper back pain originating? How do we combat it? Let’s take a look.

Where Does Upper Back Pain Come From?

Upper back pain generally stems from one of three main categories: poor posture, overusing the muscles, and injury to the area.

For our purposes, we’re defining the upper back as the thoracic spinal area, which goes from the base of the neck to the bottom of the ribcage. Upper back pain can come in the form of many different sensations, with burning, aching, and “pulling” as the most commonly described.

Let’s get into the most frequent causes of upper back pain, as well as tips and tricks to prevent developing or worsening pain in this area.

Poor Posture

When you consistently exercise poor posture, the muscles responsible for holding the correct form become deconditioned and weak. The weakening of these muscles leads to an increase in strains and irritation to the area, which causes pain. By slouching or hunching over a desk, gravity is able to put pressure on the spine and surrounding ligaments in an unnatural way. Over time, this pressure can cause aching and pain.

To correct this, taking frequent breaks to stretch and move the upper back is important. Breaking up the time spent in this position reducing the duration of the pressure on the ligaments and spine, which helps prevent irritation from building. It’s also important to be mindful of your posture when sitting or standing and start training the muscles to keep correct form.

Muscle Overuse

For nurses working long shifts, it’s common to overuse the muscles of the back. This is caused by the repetition of the same movement over time. If this is happening, you may feel tightness, irritation, and symptoms of a muscle strain. If you begin to notice a particular motion that you make frequently is causing pain, it’s important to notice this early and rest. If you normally use one side of your body more, try using the other to reach and grab things, or asking another colleague for a helping hand.

Overuse injuries need rest to heal, and by pushing through the discomfort you are only leading to further injury. As inconvenient as it may be, the longevity of your body depends on you listening to the signals from your muscles and honoring them.

Beyond rest, heat and ice can be used to promote healing. By using these 2 in combination, you promote circulation while reducing inflammation.

If upper back pain persists and you believe overuse is the cause, consulting a physical therapist can help to develop an exercise and stretching plan that will condition the back for the needed activities.

Injury to the Area

If you recently suffered a fall, or you often lift heavy objects (yes – patients count!), your upper back pain may be a result of this. Pain may appear right after the event, but it can also be delayed and make the origin more difficult to pinpoint. Injuries can range from strains to fractured vertebrae, and avoiding treatment can lead to long-term complications.

If you suspect an injury may be causing your back pain, it’s important to get checked out with the necessary medical examinations and tests to ensure you don’t further progress the injury. In the meantime, do your best to listen to your intuition and avoid any tasks that cause the area even more pain!

Herniated Discs and Pinched Nerves

Herniated discs are more common in the lower back, but they can happen in the upper back as well. This is caused when the soft cushion between two vertebrae slips and puts pressure on the spine. This can cause sharp pain, tingling, numbness, along with other symptoms. When this is the case, resting and taking anti-inflammatory medication are both important to help heal your body as quickly as possible.

Sometimes, a herniated disc slips too far that it compresses a nearby nerve. This can lead to numbness, pain, weakness, and loss of control of the arms, legs, and bladder. Rest and anti-inflammatory drugs are the most commonly recommended form of treatment. If the pain persists or becomes unbearable, make sure you reach out to a medical specialist as you may need steroid injections or surgical intervention.

Okay, so you may have identified the most likely source of your pain, or you may feel as though it’s still in the “early stages” and you’re not quite sure. Upper back pain is much more easily prevented than cured, so it’s critical to maintain good practices as much as possible.

How Do You Prevent Upper Back Pain?

Not all upper back pain can be prevented, especially with the demands of the nursing profession. However, these tips can help to minimize any pain and prevent further progression. Our favorite practices are:

  • Take regular mini “stretch breaks” throughout the day. This can even involve taking an extra minute in the bathroom to sit down and reach overhead, bending side to side.
  • Before any activities involving heavy lifting, such as moving a patient, take a few minutes to warm up the body and the upper back muscles with a few arm circles and spinal twists. This helps warm up the muscles and reduce the likelihood of strains.
  • Make sure when you do lift objects or people, you are using your legs or asking a colleague for help. Don’t lift through the back!
  • Treat yourself to a massage. This is mandatory self-care. Thank us later.
  • Set posture reminders on your phone or apple watch. If you don’t have these things or see them frequently, post a few sticky notes around your workstation you are likely to see.
  • Meet with a physical therapist for some upper back exercises and stretches to incorporate into your daily routine.
  • Wear good foot support.
  • Sleep on a firm mattress.
  • If you stand in one place for long periods of time, make sure you move your hips, knees, feet, shoulders, and neck periodically.





Josie Burridge

Josie Burridge


Josie is a college graduate from the University of Michigan in biomedical engineering. She is currently studying for a graduate degree in public health and is focusing her education on population health sciences and improving health care systems in our communities. She loves the way in which the medical field is constantly evolving as new discoveries are made, and she hopes to one day contribute her own research!


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