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Upper back pain

Updated: Aug 18, 2022

Sore upper back from sitting at your work desk all day?

Thoracic or upper back pain is quite common - so you’re not alone.

The approximate prevalence of thoracic spine pain experienced in a lifetime ranges from 16-20% of individuals[1].

The thoracic spine consists of 12 vertebrae or bones that make up the middle part of the spine. Within this part of the spine the thoracic vertebrae have joints between one another (facet joints) as well as joining with the ribs to make the costovertebral joints. The thoracic spine is often injured or a cause of pain due to poor postural habits; structures which can cause pain include joints, muscles, ligaments, nerves and discs. Concurrent musculoskeletal pain; growth; social, environmental and psychological factors also are major contributors to those whom suffer from thoracic spine pain[1].

Most common causes for thoracic pain:

  • Muscle overload

  • Lack of strength

  • Poor posture

  • Reduced range of motion

  • Prolonged sitting at a computer/desk

  • Using a backpack/ single strap bag

  • Difficulty with activities of daily living

  • Overuse injuries (such as repetitive motion)

  • Trauma (such as a whiplash injury caused by a car accident or as a result of a sports injury)

  • Poor mental health

  • Inflammatory conditions

  • Osteoporosis/osteoarthritis

What are some effective ways of managing my thoracic pain?

Physiotherapy can help you with your thoracic pain using a range of techniques such as remedial/soft tissue massage; spinal mobilisation/manipulation; exercise therapy including strengthening stretches, Pilates; dry needling; taping techniques; muscle activation and postural training to maintain alignment.

Research suggests that thoracic mobility exercises (incl. foam roller exercises) may be a potentially effective intervention for the management of chronic spine pain [3]. Exercise therapy targeting thoracic stabilisation with static, dynamic and functional movements has also been shown to decrease postural pain, spinal curvatures, postural sway, and increase core endurance. Thus exercise can be effective in alleviating postural pain and correcting misalignment of spine related to core weakness and balance disorders[4].

Try some of these simple home exercises to target your thoracic spine pain.

Thoracic pain can also be linked to neck pain, headaches, shoulder and low back pain - if you’d like to know more about this see Neck pain, Back pain.

Thoracic spinal manipulation with conservative exercise therapy is more effective than conservative exercise therapy alone for patients with sub-acromial shoulder pain. [5]

Advice provided within this blog may not be suitable for all individuals suffering from upper back/thoracic pain. Assessment and diagnosis for each individuals impairments and suitability for exercises should always be conducted prior to developing a treatment plan and exercise prescription. Should you have any further questions or would like to discuss your thoracic pain with a physiotherapist, please contact Our Physio Central Coast (02) 4339 4475.


[1] Briggs, A. M., Smith, A. J., Straker, L. M., & Bragge, P. (2009). Thoracic spine pain in the general population: prevalence, incidence and associated factors in children, adolescents and adults. A systematic review. BMC Musculoskeletal disorders, 10(1), 1-12.

[2]Fouquet, N., Bodin, J., Descatha, A., Petit, A., Ramond, A., Ha, C., & Roquelaure, Y. (2015). Prevalence of thoracic spine pain in a surveillance network. Occupational Medicine, 65(2), 122-125.

[3] Heneghan, N. R., Dinon, M., May, J., Hussain, Z., Roberts, S., & Rushton, A. (2022). The effect of thoracic spine mobility exercises on chronic neck pain and disability in young adults: A preliminary exploratory study. Physiotherapy, 114, e156.

[4]Çelenay, Ş. T., & Kaya, D. Ö. (2017). An 8-week thoracic spine stabilization exercise program improves postural back pain, spine alignment, postural sway, and core endurance in university students: a randomized controlled study. Turkish journal of medical sciences, 47(2), 504-513

[5]Haider, R., Bashir, M. S., Adeel, M., Ijaz, M. J., & Ayub, A. (2018). Comparison of conservative exercise therapy with and without Maitland Thoracic Manipulative therapy in patients with subacromial pain: clinical trial. J Pak Med Assoc, 68(3), 381-7.

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