Upper Back Pain in Elderly

While the majority of back pain in elderly cases deal with lower back pain, there are still tons of hospital care visits every single year due to upper back pain in elderly people. 

Whether it be due to spinal problems or an issue with your ribs, the agonizing burning or pulling sensation you feel has you wondering, when will it end?

With the upper back, lots can go wrong, so it isn’t easy to diagnose an upper back injury on your own. There are quite a few causes, some of which are especially common in the elderly community. 

We’ll cover these, along with home treatment remedies like upper back stretches for pain and professional care options. But first, let’s talk about the anatomy of the upper back.

What is considered “the upper back”?

When we discuss the upper back, we are talking about the area between the base of the neck and the bottom of the rib cage.

While a lot of the time upper back pain in elderly people has to do with the spine, this isn’t always the case. Plenty of instances of upper back pain are actually the result of a tweak in your ribs or surrounding muscles. 

This is why MRI’s and x-rays are done when you go to see a doctor for chronic upper back pain.

Elderly people experience upper back pain in different places like

What could be the cause of upper back pain in elderly?

Upper back pain, or thoracic spine pain as it is referred to in the medical community, can be caused by a wide range of things. These vary greatly in terms of degree of pain and length of recovery, so we’ll start on the lighter end of the spectrum.

Poor posture

All too often elderly people are living with upper back pain caused by poor posture. This can compound upon itself over years and years of slouching while you sit, or staring at a screen while sitting at your desk.

By not using your muscles properly, you are deconditioning them. This opens up the door for injury, especially as your spine and it’s components weaken with age. In fact, poor posture can lead to many of the degenerative upper back conditions we’ll explain later.

But, start by taking an honest assessment of your posture. If you think you may have text-neck or you slouch, take immediate steps to improve your posture.

Upper back muscle overuse

Just like not using your muscles properly can cause pain, using them too much can also cause pain. If you are moving heavy objects or doing physical activity in your old age, you are at heightened risk of straining your upper back muscles.

This doesn’t mean you should stop going to the gym. We encourage you to continue lifting weights and exercising in a safe manner.

Just make sure you listen to your body when it tells you it’s had enough, and give yourself plenty of recovery time.

Degenerative conditions in the upper back

Sometimes, upper back pain in elderly people is simply caused by old age itself. Your spine starts to break down over time, and not much can be done to prevent this. There are a few different types of degeneration that can present itself in upper back pain.

However, degeneration in the lumbar spine is far more common, which leads to lower back pain.

Illnesses that can cause upper back pain in elderly people

In some rare occasions, upper back pain in elderly people can actually indicate a more serious underlying illness. Some common illnesses which exhibit upper back pain as a symptom include:

  • Lung cancer
  • Kidney disease
  • Aneurysm
  • Aortic dissection
  • Prostate cancer
  • Cauda equina syndrome

What helps upper back pain in old age?

Assuming your upper back pain is not caused by some type of illness, there are things you can do from the comfort of your own home to try and alleviate some of it.

If after a few weeks or so you don’t notice any improvement in your condition, you may want to try some of the professional care options we recommend.

Alleviate upper back pain through movement

One of the easiest ways to see improvement in the upper back pain elderly people experience is to get moving. Even just getting outside for a walk, doing some low-impact yoga and upper back stretches, trying out Tai Chi or hitting your local gym’s pool for some aerobics is all it takes to get the blood flowing.

You can follow this up with core exercises, as these muscles in your abdomen are often responsible for back pain in general.

Finish up with stretches for your chest, shoulders, and other upper body muscles. Oftentimes, back pain can be caused by tightness on the front of our bodies, so don’t neglect those muscles!

Icing and heating your upper back

Alternating between ice and heat is another easy way to stimulate healing and manage upper back pain.

Start with ice the first few days you notice your pain, and then switch to heat. The ice will decrease inflammation, while the heat will get blood in that area moving, which helps heal.

Drugs for upper back pain in elderly people

You should avoid taking any drugs, prescription or over the counter, to help with upper back pain. These are a very short-term solution, and won’t always do much for your pain anyway.

So, you end up still hurting, and now have to deal with a painkiller dependence. This is why we recommend cutting these out altogether, or using them as an emergency on your worst days only.

Professional care

If after a few weeks your upper back pain doesn’t resolve, you may need to see a specialist. Chiropractors are experts on the spine problems, and can physically manipulate it back into position. Going for regular adjustments may be a good solution.

Or, you can try physical therapy, which is a combination of deep tissue work, stretching, and exercises. This is a great way to treat your injury, recover from it, and strengthen your body so you can prevent further injury.

When should I go to the ER for upper back pain?

It is pretty rare that upper back pain in elderly people justifies a trip to the emergency room. But, sometimes, this pain is an indication of something more serious.

Trust your gut when deciding if you need to go to the ER or not regarding your upper back pain. If you are considering whether or not your symptoms justify it, look for these symptoms in particular:

Sharp pain

Sharp pain in your upper back can indicate a torn muscle, but it can also indicate something serious with an internal organ in the back or side. If you don’t suspect you’ve torn a muscle (if you’ve done no physical activity, for example) and you get agonizing sharp pain out of nowhere, you should probably head to the ER.

Sudden weakness in the legs

Weakness in your legs, seemingly out of nowhere, can be caused by a number things. One of the more common causes is compressed nerves in the spine. Another really common cause is a stroke – your legs will get very weak leading up to it.


If you have a combination of back pain and the inability to control your bowels or bladder, you may have a serious spinal infection. Two of the most common are meningitis and saddle anesthesia.

Any of these conditions, or a combination of these, is reason to justify a trip to the ER. It’s better to be safe than sorry!

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Stevie Compango, CNSC, CPT

Stevie is Certified Nutrition Specialist and Certified Personal Trainer for the past 10 years. He specializes in mobility and chronic pain management. His methods have helped thousands of clients improve the quality of their life through movement.

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