Pain in the neck and upper back can be temporary. For example, a person may have a sore neck after sleeping in an unnatural position. However, for some people, pain in this area is chronic.

Upper back pain can limit movement and occur alongside a tension headache. Treatment options can include core strengthening exercises and pain relief.

In this article, we review the causes of this type of pain and the treatment options to relieve uncomfortable upper back and neck aches.

a woman applying a compress to treat upper back and neck painShare on Pinterest
Hot or cold compresses may help manage symptoms of neck or upper back pain.

A painful upper back and neck may be the result of the following:

  • repetitive heavy lifting
  • bad posture
  • acute injury
  • sprain or strain
  • pinched nerve
  • obesity
  • other conditions, such as scoliosis

Upper back pain is also known as thoracic spine pain. Although upper back pain is not as common as neck pain, according to a 2014 study, it affects approximately 1 in 5 females and 1 in 10 males.

Poor posture

Poor posture can cause upper back pain because it is difficult for a person to maintain a good seating position over an extended period.

A person can reduce pain in their upper back by making themselves aware of how they are sitting and exercising to strengthen the core and buttocks.

Specific exercises that can improve a slouching posture include:

  • planks
  • bridges
  • back extensions

Muscle overuse

Athletes who perform frequent throwing movements, such as pitchers in baseball, may experience a strain in the shoulder area. The muscles in the upper back help stabilize the shoulder, and straining or overusing them can lead to pain.

Unchecked muscle overuse can lead to chronic pain and a limited range of motion.

Learn more about treating muscle strains here.


Upper back and neck pain can also occur due to trauma, such as that resulting from the following injuries:

  • car accidents
  • sport accidents
  • falling, slipping, or tripping
  • whiplash

A person may experience long-term health consequences when their upper back or neck sustains a severe injury in an accident. For example, serious injuries may damage nerves that play a role in arm function.


While muscles are often the reason for pain in the upper back and neck, bone pain is another cause.

In people with osteoarthritis, a common disease among older adults, the cartilage that prevents the vertebrae from rubbing against one another wears away.

Pinched nerve

The disks that cushion the spine’s vertebrae can sometimes pop out, leading to excess pressure on the spine, which can cause back pain.

In some cases, herniated disks can slip out and compress nerves, leading to pain and weakness in the arms or legs — depending on the nerve affected.


In rare cases, an epidural abscess may be the cause of upper back and neck pain. As the growth swells, pain increases. Treatment typically involves antibiotics.

However, this kind of abscess is difficult to diagnose. According to one 2016 study, up to 75% of people with this type of infection initially receive a misdiagnosis.

Bacterial meningitis is an infection of the meninges that can cause upper back and neck pain. The meninges are a protective membrane that forms around the brain and spinal cord.

Meningitis is an emergency condition that requires immediate medical attention. People with meningitis may also experience:

  • fever
  • sensitivity to light
  • vomiting
  • confusion

Heart attack

Neck pain can be a sign of a heart attack if it occurs along with the following symptoms:

  • sweating
  • vomiting
  • arm pain
  • jaw pain
  • nausea

Anyone experiencing neck pain along with other heart attack symptoms should call 911 or visit an emergency room.

Treatment for upper back and neck pain varies depending on the cause. For instance, an infection will likely require antibiotics, but pain due to repetitive strain requires rest and over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers.

Conventional treatments for upper back and neck pain include:

A physical therapist can use muscle release techniques and explain how to do strengthening and stretching exercises to help relieve upper back and neck pain. Adherence to a physical therapy program is essential.

People should continue exercising when the pain has gone to prevent it from returning.

A TENS machine produces electrical pulses via electrodes that attach to the skin. While experts consider it safe, conclusive evidence regarding the treatment’s effectiveness is still necessary.

Other treatment options and alternative therapies include:

A person experiencing upper back and neck pain should see a doctor if the pain:

  • does not go away, even with rest
  • is the result of an acute injury, such as a fall
  • occurs alongside numbness in the extremities or weakness
  • presents with a fever
  • accompanies swollen glands or a lump

Upper back and neck pain are often due to poor posture and muscle strain.

People who are diligent in correcting and maintaining their posture will likely experience a reduction in pain.

Anyone who cannot get relief with home treatments should seek the help of a medical professional.

Some habits and activities put people at higher risk of experiencing upper back and neck pain. Those who wish to prevent pain from recurring should pay attention to the following:

  • Exercise habits: Strengthening the core and improving flexibility can reduce a person’s chances of developing back pain.
  • Body weight: Having obesity can put undue strain on the body and spine.
  • Body posture: Whether standing or sitting, good posture can make all the difference in preventing back and neck pain.
  • Lifting technique: People should take care to lift with the legs instead of the back to avoid back injuries.

A person should note that sitting for long periods increases slouching behavior, potentially leading to back pain. A 2015 study found that participants who sat for 4–6 hours a day were more likely to report higher levels of pain than those with less sitting time.

Upper back and neck pain can interfere with a person’s life, causing discomfort and distress. However, this type of pain usually results from behavior that people can easily correct, such as bad posture.

Finding the right treatment plan to address chronic upper back and neck pain can take some time. Using recommended strategies will provide relief and prevent pain from returning in the future.