What are the Most Common Causes of Sharp Upper Back Pain?

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  • Written By: Meshell Powell
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 06 October 2019
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Sharp upper back pain can be distressing and even debilitating. While most cases of sharp upper back pain are not considered medical emergencies, certain life-threatening conditions, such as problems with the heart, may present with this symptom. Some of the more common sharp upper back pain causes include medical conditions such as arthritis, strained or weakened muscles, or joint problems. Spinal disc problems or osteoporosis may also cause this type of pain. Treatment relies on obtaining an accurate diagnosis so that the true cause of the pain can be properly treated.

Poor posture or overusing the muscles of the back are common causes of sharp upper back pain, especially when repetitive movements are involved. Women with large breasts may also experience this symptom when raising the hands above the head or lifting something heavy. Sudden injuries such as car accidents or sports injuries may also cause this type of upper back pain.

Osteoarthritis is a possible reason for sharp upper back pain. This is a common joint disorder that causes the bones of a joint to wear away, often causing moderate to sever pain. Pain from osteoarthritis is often worse after physical activity and may ease off with proper rest. Medications and physical therapy are often used to treat this condition, although surgery is sometimes needed.


Cervical spinal stenosis may lead to episodes of sharp upper back pain. Cervical spinal stenosis occurs when the bones of the spine, known as vertebra, compress, or press against, the nerves in the upper spine. Lifestyle modification, exercise, and the use of prescription medications may help to alleviate the pain. Injections may be given directly into the spine if other methods of treatment do not provide adequate pain relief.

A ruptured or herniated disc in the spine is not particularly common, but when it does occur, the result may be sharp upper back pain. A herniated disc occurs when one or more discs of the spine moves out of the normal position. When this happens, the disc presses on surrounding nerves, often resulting in sharp shooting pains. Physical therapy and the use of ice packs and over-the-counter or prescription pain medications are the standard treatment for a herniated disc, although steroid injections may be needed to provide sufficient symptom relief. If these treatment methods fail, surgical intervention may be necessary to repair the damaged disc and any surrounded tissues that may be affected.


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