What are the Common Causes of Chest and Upper Back Pain?

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  • Written By: Dan Cavallari
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 14 November 2019
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Most people tend to believe that, when they feel chest and upper back pain, they are experiencing or about to experience a heart attack. This is not the case, as most pain in this area is due to issues in the back or diaphragm rather than the heart itself. Back issues, such as spinal compression or a herniated disc, can cause pain in the chest since many of the muscles and tendons that originate in the upper back can extend into the chest area. Tightness due to back pain can cause pain throughout the diaphragm and the ribs.

While the good news is the sufferer is most likely not having a heart attack, the bad news is that this pain can be just as painful and problematic. In many cases, back pain is caused by weak or tight muscles, and stretching and exercise can help relieve the pain. In other instances, spinal compression may cause back and chest pain, which may require physical therapy or a regular exercise and stretching routine to fix. More serious issues, such as a herniated disc in the spine, may require a simple remedy such as rest and exercise, but they may also require a more intensive treatment. In some cases, a herniated disc requires surgery.


Nerve damage can certainly cause chest and upper back pain, especially if a person is experiencing spinal compression or a herniated disc. As pressure is placed on a nerve, the areas serviced by that nerve may experience sharp pain, numbness, tingling, or even a loss of motor control. To treat nerve pain, it is important to figure out what is causing it; if a person feels upper back pain in conjunction with nerve pain that may stretch throughout the diaphragm, shoulders, and arms, the nerve pain may very well be the result of spinal compression or a herniated disc.

Weak muscles are more likely than strong ones to become tired, and when muscles become tired, they tend to tighten up. When this occurs, the muscles may pull on the spine or other bones and tendons in the body, thereby misaligning the diaphragm. This can cause pain in the chest and back, as well as in other areas of the body. The best way to remedy this situation is to participate in a regular exercise and stretching routine that strengthens the muscles and keeps them limber, reducing the possibility that they will tighten up and cause alignment issues.


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Post 6

@lluviaporos-- I've heard that too and I think that's true. But the kind of chest and back pain caused by an ill-fitting bra is nothing close to the chest and back pain caused by a spinal issue.

My dad has two spinal hernias and a pinched nerve in his back. When his symptoms were the worst, he couldn't even lie down and he couldn't sleep from the pain.

Post 5

@fBoyle-- A medical professional will be able to answer your question better. But from my experience, muscle pain tends to be temporary and can move around, which is not true of pain due to the heart.

I experience upper back and chest pain due to obesity and some issues with my spine. In the beginning, I also thought that the pain was related to my heart. But I realized that it couldn't be because the pain would come and go and also move around from my chest to my back.

I did get checked out by a cardiologist just to make sure though because it's not a good idea to diagnose ourselves. Everything came out fine with my heart but my doctor said that I did the right thing by being precautionary because these symptoms could have been due to an infection of the heart tissue which is very serious.

Post 4

How do we tell apart chest and back pain due to a muscle strain from a heart attack or a similar serious condition?

Post 3

I've had sharp chest pains before that have turned out to be a problem with the muscles in my chest rather than a heart attack.

The problem is that if you go to the hospital or your doctor and tell them you're having chest pains, more often than they will check you in, just in case and run all kinds of tests.

I'm a believer in getting checked out every time something suspicious happens, just in case the one time I don't get checked out it turns out to be serious. But it's incredibly inconvenient to end up staying overnight in a hospital for no real reason.

So, if you are reasonably sure that your chest pains are from something in particular and are not a heart attack (and you do need to be absolutely sure about this) I would not describe them to the doctor as "chest pain" but maybe say upper chest and back pain instead.

Post 2

@Iluviaporos - Just as long as they go to a proper place for fitting and don't try to get fitted at a chain store. Unfortunately the chain stores use a standard measurement that's linked to their own sizes, so if you don't fit those sizes, they will try to sell you on the wrong size so they can make a sale.

I had upper back and chest pain for years because I faithfully kept going back to the same store and buying the same kind of bra and it was several sizes too small for me.

Post 1

Sometime to consider if you're a woman is that often ladies tend to get back and chest pain from wearing the wrong size bra. There's a statistic I've seen that something like 80% of women are wearing the wrong size of bra and it wouldn't surprise me if that was true.

It stems from women wanting to wear smaller sizes because that makes us feel skinnier and from them just not understanding how bra sizes work.

The band should be the part that's supporting everything, not the straps. If you're getting pain in your shoulders and around your chest on a regular basis and you can't wait to take off your bra when you get home, it's almost certainly the wrong size for you. Go and get yourself fitted in order to get the right size.

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