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Back Pain Center

Causes of High Back Pain

author image Lori Newell
I hold a Master's degree in exercise physiology/health promotion. I am a certified fitness specialist through the American College of Spots Medicine and an IYT certified yoga teacher. I have over 25 years experience teaching classes to both general public and those with chronic illness. The above allows me to write directly to the reader based on personal experiences.
Causes of High Back Pain
A young woman holding her upper back and low neck in pain. Photo Credit 9nong/iStock/Getty Images


While low back is a more common complaint, there are conditions that can cause periodic or chronic high back pain as well. Any new pain that occurs in the upper back or thoracic area of the spine should always be properly evaluated and diagnosed. Sometimes upper back pain can be resolved with exercise and stretching, while other cases may require medical treatment.

Poor Posture

Sitting for prolonged periods, spending most of the day at a computer or leaning over a workstation, and doing a lot of driving can all lead to changes in posture. The head tends to jut forward and the shoulders may round forward as well. Over time, this can lead to a rounded upper back called a dowager's hump, humpback, kyphosis or swayback, warns the Johns Hopkins Medicine Health Alerts website.

This change occurs because the upper back muscles get overstretched and weak, and the chest muscles become tight, both of which can chronically round the upper back. The good news is that in these cases, exercises to strengthen the upper back, stretches to loosen the chest muscles and efforts to maintain good posture during the day can all help to correct this condition and ease high back pain.

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Osteoporosis is a condition where the bones lose strength and become more susceptible to fracturing. The most common sites for fractures are the hip, wrist and spine. As the bones in the spine or vertebrae weaken, they become unable to support the weight of the body. This can cause them to collapse and cause a condition called a compression fracture, reports the University of Maryland Medical Center website. Compression fractures in the thoracic area can cause upper back pain. In cases of severe osteoporosis, just sneezing, coughing or bending over to tie a shoe can cause a fracture.

As the vertebrae collapse, a patient may start to lose height and the upper back may begin to round forward. Since osteoporosis can exist without causing any symptoms until a fracture occurs, the best bet is to have regular bone density tests to catch the condition early. Depending on the severity of osteoporosis, a program of exercise and medication can help to prevent additional damage and bone loss.

Herniated Thoracic Disk or Degenerative Disk Disease

In between each vertebra in the spine, there are gel-filled circular structures called disks. Their job is to allow the spine to move and to provide cushioning. With age and normal wear and tear, these disks start to lose fluid and can slip out of place, or herniate. This is sometimes diagnosed as degenerative disk disease. Accidents, conditions such as arthritis, or moving and lifting improperly can also cause a disk to herniate.

In some cases, the disk stays intact but slips out of place. In other cases the gel-like center can bulge out. The most severe injury is a rupture, during which the outer layer of the disk is torn and the gel-like center leaks out. If a herniated or ruptured disk in the thoracic region places pressure on nearby muscles, tissue or nerves, upper back pain and numbness may occur, explains the University of California San Francisco website. Sometimes the disk herniation resolves on its own without treatment, whereas more severe cases may require surgery to remove the disk.


Scoliosis is a condition in which the spine abnormally curves sideways and takes on an "S" shape. While it most commonly occurs in children, it can develop in adulthood as well. Patients with scoliosis may have one shoulder or hip that is higher than the other or one shoulder blade that sticks out more than the other. In some cases, the abnormal curvature is mild, and in other cases, it can be severe. According to MayoClinic.com, in severe cases scoliosis can cause upper back pain and it can also make breathing difficult. Mild cases do not require treatment. More severe curvatures may necessitate the use of a brace or surgery.

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