Back pain is a very common problem that can seriously disrupt everyday life. Several things can give rise to upper left back pain, such as muscle strain, poor posture, and arthritis.
This article explains what can cause upper left back pain. It also covers treatment options and when to see a doctor.
According to the American Chiropractic Association, about 80% of the United States population will experience back pain at some point during their lives.
The cause of pain in the upper left back may depend on the exact location of the pain, how bad the pain is, and when the pain occurs.
The following sections will look at some potential causes of upper left back pain in more detail.
Pain on one side of the back can occur as a result of an injury to the muscles, joints, or disks that make up and support the spine.
Tears, strains, and sprains can occur during sports, from physically demanding work, or through more serious events such as vehicle accidents.
People can even strain the back muscles or ligaments when they sneeze or cough.
Straining the trapezius or rhomboid muscles, which are located around the shoulder and upper back area, can cause upper back pain.
The pain in these cases can be very intense and can occur either in one specific area of the back or across a larger area.
Poor posture can also cause back pain. Many people spend long periods of time sitting in the same position, due to working on computers or sitting in classrooms.
If poor posture continues regularly for long periods of time, it can put strain on the muscles in the upper back.
Pressure on the nerves in the back due to a herniated, or slipped, disk can cause upper back pain.
The disks in the spine are soft cushions of tissue between the vertebrae. Sustaining damage to the outer layer of these disks can cause the inner tissue to push outside of the spine and press on the nerves surrounding the spine, causing pain in the upper back.
The name for a disk that herniates in the upper back is a herniated thoracic disk. There is very little space around the spinal cord in the upper portion of the spine, so herniation in this area can be serious.
However, it is more common to herniate a disk in the lower back than in the upper back.
Arthritis is the name for a group of conditions that cause pain and inflammation in the joints.
More specifically, osteoarthritis is a type of arthritis that causes the cartilage at the end of a bone to break down. Along with stiffness and reduced flexibility, a person may experience upper back pain.
Arthritis does not have to be in the upper left back to cause pain in that area. For example, a person with arthritis in another part of the body may walk or sit differently to relieve pressure on the affected area, thereby putting excess pressure on other muscles.
A bone spur is an extra piece of bone that has developed on a normal piece of bone. Spurs can occur due to increasing age, arthritis, or the body trying to repair damage to the bone after an injury.
Spurs that develop in the spine may cause back pain and stiffness. Spurs that develop in the neck can pinch a nerve and may cause numbness and weakness in the arms.
Fractures to the vertebrae in the upper back can be serious and cause intense pain. There may also be bruising and swelling in the upper back after the injury.
A person needs prompt medical treatment for a fractured vertebra in the upper back due to the risk of damage to the spinal cord.
Spinal stenosis causes the spinal canal to narrow, resulting in compression of the nerve roots and spinal cord inside. It often occurs in the neck or lower back.
Spinal stenosis can cause pain, cramps, weakness, or numbness.
Osteoarthritis or problems with the disks or ligaments in the back can cause spinal stenosis.
Scapular dyskinesis refers to the irregular positioning of the shoulder blades.
Weakness, imbalance, or detachment of the muscles that support the shoulder blade may cause scapular dyskinesis.
Symptoms of scapula dyskinesis may include:
- pain around the shoulder blade
- weakness in the arm
- a limited range of motion
The spine curves naturally, but scoliosis refers to abnormal curves in the spine. Specifically, in scoliosis, the spine curves sideways.
Symptoms of scoliosis include:
- uneven-looking shoulders or waist
- back pain or stiffness
- numbness or weakness in one or both legs
Kyphosis is a spinal condition. It causes the upper back to become hunched and rounded due to an excessive curve in the spine.
In most cases, kyphosis does not cause any significant problems. However, in more severe cases, it may cause pain and breathing problems.
Pancreatitis refers to the inflammation of the pancreas.
Acute pancreatitis is short-term and may cause symptoms such as:
- upper abdominal pain that may spread to the upper back
- a swollen stomach
- nausea and vomiting
Chronic pancreatitis is a long-term condition and may cause symptoms such as:
- greasy, foul-smelling stool
- weight loss
- abdominal pain that spreads to the back
- pain that worsens after eating
Kidney stones can cause pain on one side of the body when they leave the kidney. Although this pain occurs in the lower abdomen, it may also spread to the groin and the upper back area.
Heart attack occurs when blood cannot get to the heart to be pumped around the body.
Although symptoms can vary from person to person, chest pain is common. This pain can also spread to the jaw, neck, and upper back.
Heart attack is a medical emergency. The person needs immediate medical care.
Upper and middle back pain may also cause the following symptoms:
- a dull or sharp pain in the back or shoulders
- muscle tightness
- stiffness and reduced flexibility
- weakness or numbness in the arms or legs
- a loss of bladder control
Numbness, tingling, or a loss of bladder control can be symptoms of a serious condition. Anyone who notices these symptoms should seek immediate medical attention.
If upper left back pain does not go away on its own or with appropriate home treatments, it may be best to see a doctor.
If any symptoms of more serious conditions occur — such as numbness, tingling, or difficulty breathing — a person needs medical help straight away.
The type of treatment a person needs will depend on what is causing the upper left back pain.
The following sections will look at some possible treatment options in more detail.
People can take anti-inflammatory medications such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to reduce swelling and pain.
Some other types of pain relief include injections and electrical stimulation.
Also, performing exercises that strengthen the muscles in the back can help support the spine. A physical therapist can assist with this.
If a serious health condition is causing upper left back pain, a person may require surgery to relieve the pain and correct any structural issues with the spine.
Performing gentle exercise can help maintain flexibility in the back and relieve pain.
Increasing exercise levels generally can also help a person maintain a moderate weight, which may help reduce stress and pressure on the spine.
If injury or overuse is causing pain, resting can help the body recover.
The following may help relieve the pain and relax the muscles:
- applying heat packs or ice
- trying massage
- trying acupuncture
People may find that the following tips can help prevent upper back pain:
- lifting heavy objects with the knees and not twisting the back when lifting
- keeping the correct posture while sitting or standing for long periods of time
- exercising regularly to keep the back strong and maintain a moderate weight
- not smoking, as smoking reduces the nutrients available to the spinal cord
The outlook for upper left back pain is good, with people often recovering within a few weeks or months.
However, if a serious health condition is causing the back pain, the outlook may differ depending on the nature of that condition.
A wide range of problems can cause upper left back pain, such as muscle tears, poor posture, or fractures or structural conditions in the spine.
The treatments for upper left back pain include pain management, muscle strengthening, and maintaining good posture.