Treat Chronic Upper Back Pain Without Surgery

Chronic upper back pain is a common problem that affects millions of people worldwide. While upper back pain can sometimes be a symptom of a serious medical condition, the vast majority of cases are due to muscle strain, poor posture, arthritis, or other non-life-threatening causes. For many sufferers, upper back pain becomes a long-term issue that negatively impacts their quality of life. Fortunately, there are many effective ways to treat chronic upper back pain without resorting to surgery.

Posture Correction

One of the most common causes of chronic upper back pain is poor posture. Slouching at a desk job, looking down at phones and tablets, and even sleeping in a curled position can all put strain on the upper back over time. Many people are able to find relief from chronic back pain through actively correcting their posture. This may involve certain exercises, stretches, and simple lifestyle adjustments. An example is setting a timer to remind yourself to sit up straight or stand and stretch throughout the day. Using a back brace or support can also help reinforce better posture. Over time, maintaining proper spinal alignment becomes a habit and takes pressure off the upper back.

Targeted Exercises

While posture correction is important, targeted strength training of the upper back can also help reduce pain. Exercises that improve posture often focus on the core and lower back. But specific muscle groups like the rhomboids and trapezius in the upper back support the neck and shoulder area. Low weight strength training with resistance bands, dumbbells, or even bodyweight exercises like seated rows can build muscle to take pressure off joints. A physical therapist can recommend the best mix of exercises and stretches to help strengthen the upper back. They may also utilize techniques like dry needling to release muscle tension in the area.

Massage Therapy

Chronic upper back pain commonly involves muscle tightness and spasms that massage therapy can help relieve. Various massage techniques can increase blood flow, relax muscles, and mobilize soft tissue in the upper back. Swedish massage uses long strokes along the length of the back to warm and loosen the area. Trigger point therapy focuses on relieving knots and tension in specific spots. Shiatsu and acupressure massage apply targeted pressure to meridian points thought to relieve blockages. Massage needs to be performed by a trained professional and can be incorporated into an overall wellness plan. Ongoing massage therapy provides progressive relief by systematically releasing areas of chronic tension.

Chiropractic Adjustments

Chiropractic care is a drug-free way to both treat existing upper back pain and help prevent future episodes. Doctors of chiropractic perform spinal manipulation or adjustment to improve mobility and alignment of the upper back and neck. There are various adjustment techniques, but often involve the controlled application of force to joints and muscles. This releases stiffness, restores range of motion, and reduces nerve irritation. Chiropractic can be especially helpful for pain caused by disc, facet joint, or vertebrae issues. Relief is often felt immediately, and regular sessions help sustain improvements.


Acupuncture has been used for thousands of years to relieve all kinds of body pain, including upper back pain. Fine needles are inserted into specific pressure points along the upper back and neck in order to restore the smooth flow of qi (life energy). This releases endorphins which block pain signals and provide a soothing sensation. Electroacupuncture applies light electrical stimulation to the needles for increased effectiveness. The number of sessions needed depends on the severity of pain but is generally given 1-2 times per week. Acupuncture is very safe when performed by licensed practitioners. It provides progressive relief that can help wean chronic sufferers off medications.


For acute flare ups of upper back pain, over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen or naproxen can provide temporary relief from inflammation. They should be used cautiously at the lowest dose for the shortest time possible to avoid side effects. Some patients may require prescription medications for a limited period to break the pain cycle. Muscle relaxers relieve spasms, while certain antidepressants and anticonvulsants can calm nerve pain. Narcotics should be avoided if possible due to risks. Injections like trigger point injections or epidural steroid injections can sometimes provide targeted pain relief as well. A doctor can weigh the pros and cons of medications for each individual.

Mind-Body Therapies

Chronic pain often involves both physical and psychological components. Practices that quiet the mind, reduce stress, and promote relaxation can help break the pain cycle. These include meditation, yoga, tai chi, hypnotherapy, and cognitive behavioral therapy. Mindfulness training teaches being present in the moment to let go of negative thought patterns that exacerbate pain. Biofeedback uses electrical sensors that allow controlling brain waves, breathing, heart rate, and skin temperature to enter deeper states of calm. Hypnosis guides imagery to relax the body on a subconscious level. Using mind-body therapies requires practice but can provide lasting tools for pain management.

The key to treating chronic upper back pain is using multiple approaches together for long-term relief. Poor posture or improper body mechanics often contribute to pain, so improving these through exercise, massage, and chiropractic care can treat the underlying cause. Temporary use of medication, injections, or alternative therapies can interrupt the chronic pain pattern. Mindfulness and relaxation techniques give patients a sense of control and means of managing stress. Developing a multifaceted treatment plan without surgery allows most people with chronic upper back pain to feel significantly better.