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Stiff Upper Back

Man suffering from stiff upper back

A stiff upper back often comes with some pain in your upper back when you try to move. No matter how old you are, you probably feel a lot older when you feel some back pain.

Sometimes, the pain relieves you after stretching, taking pain relief meds, and sleeping. At other times, the pain stays on and affects your daily activities. When the latter happens, it becomes a cause for concern. That’s why you need to find a solution fast.

Let's look at the symptoms and causes of a stiff upper back. This article also explores several treatment options.

How Do You Know You Have A Stiff Upper Back?

The common symptoms of a stiff upper back include;

Sharp Pain

You may experience a sharp burning pain that feels like tension in your back. Usually, this pain is concentrated in one spot and does not spread around.

Throbbing Pain

When you experience a throbbing or aching pain that spreads beyond your upper back into your lower back, shoulder, or neck.

Muscle Stiffness

A stiff upper back may result in loss of mobility in your upper back muscles. You may be unable to or experience difficulty lifting or moving your arms.

Radiating Pain

This pain travels along your nerve to other parts of your body. For example, you may experience a dull or electric shock-like pain in your arms, chest, stomach, or legs when you have a stiff upper back. Usually, this pain is present on one side of the body and may come and go or be continuous.

Tingling And Numbness

This symptom also radiates along your nerve into your arms, chest, stomach, and legs. However, unlike radiating pain, tingling feels like pin or needle pricks radiating from your thoracic spine.

What Are The Causes Of A Stiff Upper Back?

Injuries, tension, and medical conditions can result in upper back pain. Causes of the stiff upper back include;

Strains And Sprains

Lifting something too heavy or improperly can strain back muscles and tendons. Sprains and strains cause pain that worsens when you move. You may also experience a decreased range of motion, such as walking and bending difficulties.

Poor Posture

A poor posture places more pressure on the spinal discs and muscles. If you lean forward more, especially when you work on a computer, text on your phone, or drive, you may put more strain on these structures. The pain results from the stress on the back, so you should always assume a good sitting posture.


Osteoarthritis affects the spine, causing pain and stiffness. This condition is common in older adults and occurs when the cartilage preventing vertebrae from rubbing against one another wears down.


An accident or a fall can break the bones in your spine and cause a stiff upper back.

Repetitive Movements

Upper back pain resulting from repetitive movements is often common among athletes. Frequent throwing motions can cause a strain on the shoulder, affecting the upper back muscles.

Risk Factors For Stiff Upper Back

The upper back muscles hardly flex as much as the lower back and neck muscles. Therefore, a stiff upper back is less common. However, there are risk factors that increase your susceptibility to back injury. These risk factors include;

Limited To No Activity

Physical activity helps your belly and back muscle better support your spine. Lack of exercise and a sedentary lifestyle can result in weak muscles, increasing the risk of developing a stiff upper back.


Your spine supports your torso's weight. Therefore, obesity stresses your back. Conversely, losing weight reduces back pain and relieves the soft tissues in your back.


Smoking can cause inflammation and degeneration of the spine, leading to a stiff upper back. Besides, this bad habit reduces blood flow to the spine, leading to pain and injury.

How To Relieve Stiff Upper Back?

Methods for relieving upper back pain depend on the pain's intensity and cause. If you have mild to moderate pain, you can manage your symptoms at home with;

  • Over-the-counter pain relief medications like NSAIDs, including acetaminophen.
  • Ice pack to manage swelling and reduce pain.
  • Heating pads to relieve stiffness and improve mobility.
  • Gentle stretches.

When Should You Get Medical Help?

After trying at-home remedies and you still experience upper back pain, you should seek medical help. Besides prolonged pain, you should visit a doctor if your upper back pain is accompanied by;

  • Breathing difficulties.
  • Severe headache.
  • Balance or walking problems.
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control.
  • Tingling and numbness in other parts of the body, like the chest, buttocks, and legs.

Stiff Upper Back Treatment

After diagnosing your stiff upper back, your doctor will prescribe treatment to improve your symptoms and relieve your pain. This treatment may include the following;

Prescription Medications

Your doctor may prescribe NSAIDs or muscle relaxants to relieve your pain. And if the pain does not relieve you, you may get opioid pain relievers. It is important to note that these medications are for short-term use.


Your doctor can administer spinal injections to block pain. However, injections can only block pain in the short term. After that, you'll have to use either upper back pain remedies, including stretches and exercises to relieve your stiff upper back.


Your doctor may refer you for physiotherapy in Barrie to improve your stiff upper back. Your physiotherapist will work with you to create a treatment plan that targets your specific needs. The treatment may take a few weeks to months, depending on the severity of the pain.


Surgery is often the last resort for upper back pain, and this treatment method is prescribed if there is an issue with the spine.

Physiotherapy For Stiff Upper Back

A physiotherapist can work with you to create a program to ease your pain and restore your full range of motion. In addition, you may undergo passive and active treatments to help your body heal.

Passive Treatments

In passive physiotherapy, you don't have to participate actively. Your physiotherapist will carry out treatments to help you relax. Some passive treatments for relieving upper back pain include;

Deep Tissue Massage

A deep tissue massage relieves the build-up of chronic muscle tension due to daily stress, sprains, or strains. This technique releases tension and relieves pain. Your physiotherapist applies direct pressure and friction to your soft tissues, including tendons, muscles, and ligaments.

Hot And Cold Therapy

Hot and cold therapy involves alternating heat and cold to relieve back pain. Your physiotherapist will use heat therapy to improve blood flow and oxygen in target areas. The improved blood flow aids healing by removing waste byproducts caused by muscle spasms.

On the other hand, cold therapy reduces spasms, pain, and inflammation. Your physiotherapist may carry out an ice massage or apply a cold pack to the target area. After the cold therapy, your physiotherapist may help you carry out stretches that target the affected muscles.


Ultrasound can warm the muscles and soft tissues of the back to improve circulation and speed healing. The ultrasound equipment generates and transfers high-frequency sound waves through a round-headed probe to a specific body part. These sound waves create gentle heat as they travel into the deep tissues.

Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS)

Physiotherapists use a TENS machine to stimulate your muscles. The machine sends an electrical current through your body at safe intensities. That reduces muscle spasms and stimulates endorphin production in the body. Endorphins are natural painkillers, and they relieve back pain

Active Treatments

You are involved in active physiotherapy for back pain. This treatment consists of exercises that improve your strength, flexibility, and range of motion. Furthermore, active physiotherapy is personalized to treat the cause of back pain.

Your physiotherapist will also teach you how to maintain a good posture and other habits to prevent a stiff upper back.

How To Prevent A Stiff Upper Back

You can prevent a stiff upper back and also avoid a reoccurrence. Tips for preventing upper back pain include;

  • Practicing and maintaining good posture when standing, sitting, or moving. A good posture supports the natural curves of your neck, mid back, and lower back. Therefore, your head should be above your hips, while the top of your shoulder should be over your hips.
  • Carrying out regular exercises. Cardio and strength training improves your core strength and supports your upper back muscles.
  • Eat a balanced and nutritious diet to give your body what it needs for proper functioning.
  • If you smoke, it is best to stop
  • Maintain a healthy body weight


A stiff upper back may be mild, and sometimes, it can restrict your movement. After trying at-home remedies to no avail, it is ideal to seek medical attention. Physiotherapists can work with you to administer passive and active treatments to relieve pain and improve the range of motion.

Concept of Movement Physiotherapy in Barrie, ON, evaluates the intensity of your pain and how much it restricts movement before developing a customized treatment plan. The plan focuses on restoring your function and mobility and techniques to prevent future stiff upper back.