When people think of back pain, they tend to picture a strained lower back. But middle back pain, which encompasses the area between the neck and the bottom of the rib cage, is an ache with specific symptoms and treatments, according to Kaixuan Liu, MD, PhD, of Atlantic Spine Center.
What is Middle Back Pain?
With 12 backbones located in the middle region of the back, there’s plenty of opportunity for something to go awry that triggers back pain in this area, Dr. Liu says. He notes that symptoms depend on the cause of the problem but typically include muscle aches, sharp or stabbing pain, dull pain, burning sensations, and muscle stiffness or tightness.
“Occasionally, more serious symptoms go along with middle back pain, such as tingling, numbness or weakness in the arms, legs or chest, or loss of bladder or bowel control,” Dr. Liu explains. “Get immediate medical attention for these symptoms, of course. But usually, middle back pain is a nuisance that will go away in due time and nothing to worry about.”
Middle back pain causes
Why does middle back pain happen? Dr. Liu says the reasons are as diverse as the thousands of people who experience it. The long list of causes includes:
- Aging: Pain in any region of the back is more common as people get older. “But aging can lead to less fluid between spinal joints, thinning bones, and lower muscle mass,” Dr. Liu says, “which can all influence back pain.”
- Arthritis: A leading cause of disability in adults, “wear and tear” arthritis in the spinal joints can result in pain in the middle back. Poor posture: When you slouch or slump your shoulders, it affects the muscles and ligaments in the middle portion of the back. This can lead to achiness in this region, Dr. Liu says.
- Obesity: When the numbers on the scale rise, so do your chances of back pain – in any area, not just the middle back. “It’s common sense to realize that adding extra weight to your frame places additional strain on bones, muscles, and other back structures,” he says.
- Falls or injuries: Dr. Liu says the middle back is less likely to be injured than the neck or lower spine because it’s more rigid. “But it’s still possible to experience middle back pain due to a hard fall, car accident, sports mishap, or other bodily trauma,” he adds.
- Herniated disc: When the gel-like inner core of the spinal disc leaks and pushes against nearby nerves, pain often follows. Dr. Liu notes that herniated discs can occur in any portion of the spine.
Middle back pain diagnosis
To determine the correct treatment plan, a person with back pain should consult a doctor to get a diagnosis. Several steps help determine the proper diagnosis. A physical exam is usually the first step. During this exam, a doctor looks at the spine, head, ligaments, pelvis, and abdomen. The goal of this step is to assess the skin condition and to check for numbness or sensitiveness.
Typically, after the physical exam, your medical team can recommend some testing. They include imaging and neurological tests. Imaging tests help reveal fractures or bone degenerations, as they provide a picture of the body’s inner parts. Such tests include X-ray, CT or MRI scan, and ultrasound.
Neurological tests assess the function of the spinal cord and brain. Usually, patients are asked to move fingers or toes and perform other special movements.
Middle back pain treatment options
If you’re experiencing middle back pain, you’ll likely want to try easy, at-home, or in-office remedies to see if they improve the problem. Simple measures may include:
- Applying ice and/or heat: Ice is best for a recent injury, while heat can help aches and pains that linger.
- Over-the-counter NSAIDs: Ibuprofen and naproxen are among the most common nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs you can pick up at the pharmacy to reduce swelling and pain.
- Exercise: Stretches, yoga, walking, and other light movements typically help back pain. Don’t stay immobile, Dr. Liu advises.
- Physical therapy: Dr. Liu says that a doctor-prescribed regimen of strengthening exercises and tasks can help your back heal stronger than ever.
- Steroid injections: Targeted shots of steroids into affected spinal disc areas can greatly reduce pain and inflammation, Dr. Liu says.
Doctors may consider surgery if non-invasive approaches don’t help your middle back pain and it’s still severe or disabling more than six weeks after it began. A variety of procedures can address this area of the spine.
Middle back pain prevention
Preventing middle back pain from happening in the first place is ideal. “There are many ways to protect your spine from pain in this region, including changing your sleeping position, improving your posture (don’t slouch), and seeing a physical therapist to improve your core strength, posture, and spine flexibility,” Dr. Liu says. It is impossible to prevent an accident that can cause pain, but there are steps to reduce the chance. For example, you can drive carefully or keep your floor tidy, so you don’t trip over something.
Strengthening muscles and bones are vital in preventing spinal pain. Getting some proper exercises and stretches improves your muscular-skeletal system health. Don’t forget to drink enough water and get healthy amounts of vitamin D, Zink, and Calcium.
Another tip would be to invest in a high-quality mattress, pillow, and chair. As most people have a sedentary lifestyle now, having a good chair and table that allows you to maintain a healthy posture is highly important. Sleeping properly can also improve your pain, so you can try sleeping on your side with a pillow between your legs to reduce the pressure on your spine.