Burning Sensation in Upper Back: what Could it Be?

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

Back pain is a common complaint in the United States, and a top reason for doctor visits and missing days from work. Some people have aches that are either:

    dull
  • constant
  • shooting pains

Yet others feel a burning sensation in their upper back due to:

  • an injury
  • inflammation
  • muscle strain
  • other causes
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Here’s what you need to know about a burning sensation in your upper back, including causes and treatment options.

Symptoms

A burning pain is different from other types of back pain. Some people describe it as a prickly, stinging sensation, or an electrical shock felt between your shoulder blades or on the right or left side of your spine.

Other symptoms can accompany a burning sensation in your upper back too. You might also experience neck pain, or pain that radiates to:

  • your arms
  • chest
  • down your leg

Upper back pain can even limit your range of motion and mobility.

Causes

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Here’s a look at a few common causes of a burning, stinging sensation in your upper back.

1. Stress

Different factors can trigger stress such as:

    work
  • family
  • health
  • financial pressure

But stress doesn’t only cause emotional distress, it can also affect you physically.

Some people get headaches when they’re stressed, and other people experience back pain.

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Stress can also cause muscle tension. This can lead to a constant ache or burning sensation between your shoulder blades and around your neck.

2. Muscle strain

A back injury or overuse of back muscles can also cause a burning, stinging sensation in your upper back. This can happen after:

  • lifting heavy objects
  • sudden movements
  • exercise
  • playing sports
  • other back injuries

Muscle strains can occur anywhere in your back, such as between your shoulder blades or on the right or left side of your spine.

Sometimes, a muscle strain can radiate to your chest. This type of pain often develops after a back injury or other strenuous activity, and symptoms might worsen with repeated strain.

3. Spinal misalignment
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Spinal misalignment are another possible cause of a burning, stinging sensation in your upper back. Factors contributing to spinal misalignment include:

  • an injury like a fall or car accident
  • improper posture
  • sleeping in an incorrect position
  • repetitive motions

You may feel pain from spinal misalignment in between your shoulder blades or neck.

4. Herniated disc

Discs are rubbery cushions in between your vertebrae (bones) in your spine. These discs become herniated when they move out of position and compress a nerve.

Pain is typically in your lower back, but you can also feel it in your upper back. You can feel pain on the right or left side of your back and a burning sensation around your neck too.

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You might have other symptoms too, like muscle weakness and muscle spasms. Some herniated discs occur after trauma like:

  • a fall
  • an accident
  • moving the wrong way

But herniated discs can also develop for no apparent reason due to age and wear and tear.

5. Rheumatic conditions

The following rheumatic conditions can affect your back pain:

  • arthritis
  • osteoarthritis
  • lupus
  • polymyalgia rheumatica

Other auto-inflammatory diseases can affect your:

  • joints
  • tendons
  • muscles
  • bones throughout your body — including your back
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An overactive immune system triggers the above conditions. In this case, the immune system mistakenly targets the body’s healthy tissue, which causes a chronic inflammatory response.

Inflammation can cause stabbing, sharp pains, as well as a burning sensation on the right or left side of your upper back, and between your shoulder blades.

6. Bone spurs

These are bony growths that form on a bone’s edge due to joint damage. Bone spurs on your spine can compress nerves. These spurs cause the following experiences to occur in your upper back:

  • weakness
  • numbness
  • a burning sensation

Bone spurs on your spine can also cause neck pain and chest pain.

7. Spinal stenosis
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Spinal stenosis is narrowing of your spinal canal, or the spaces within your spine. This narrowing also places pressure on nerves, causing back pain. Spinal stenosis often causes upper back and neck pain that radiates to your chest.

8. Spinal tumors

Tumors that develop on your spine can also cause a stinging, burning sensation in your upper back between your shoulder blades. Depending on the location of a tumor, you might also feel pain in your neck.

Spinal tumors can be malignant or benign, and cause other symptoms too. These include:

  • muscle weakness
  • difficulty walking
  • an inability to feel heat or cold

How to treat upper back pain

There are several ways to treat a burning pain in your upper back, depending on the condition.

OTC medications
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The following over-the-counter pain reliever options may help reduce inflammation and stop the burning sensation:

  • nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • ibuprofen
  • naproxen sodium
Prescription medications

If your pain doesn’t respond to over-the-counter meds, your doctor might recommend other medications, either a prescription medication or a topical cream. Prescription medications can include:

  • muscle relaxants
  • opioids
  • corticosteroids

Prescription medications and topical creams can relieve upper back pain caused by:

  • injuries
  • muscle sprains
  • herniated discs
  • spinal stenosis
  • arthritic conditions
  • bone spurs

Your doctor can administer corticosteroids by injection, or prescribe an oral steroid.

Physical therapy
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While medication can relieve inflammation and the burning sensation, you might require other therapies depending on the underlying condition. For example, physical therapy can assist with improving your:

  • flexibility
  • strength in your back
  • range of motion

Improving the physical abilities above may help ease pain associated with:

  • herniated discs
  • spinal stenosis
  • arthritic conditions
  • spinal misalignment
Surgery

If you have a spinal tumor, your doctor will likely recommend the following treatments to shrink or destroy cancerous cells:

  • surgery
  • radiation
  • chemotherapy

It’s important to know that nonsurgical therapies may not improve the following conditions:

  • herniated discs
  • spinal stenosis
  • bone spurs
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In the above scenario, you may need surgery to relieve nerve compression and ease back pain symptoms.

Relaxation

When stress causes upper back pain and neck pain, learning how to cope with stress may help you feel better. This includes:

  • setting realistic expectations
  • knowing your limitations
  • increasing physical activity
  • taking mental breaks
  • getting enough rest

If you’re unable to reduce stress naturally, talk with your doctor about anti- anxiety medications.

Home remedies for upper back pain

Although over-the-counter and prescription medication can relieve a burning sensation in your upper back, you might prefer home remedies.

  • Hot or cold therapy. For acute pain due to injury or muscle strain, cold therapy may help reduce inflammation. Wrap an ice pack in a towel, and then apply the towel to your back and neck. Apply cold therapy for no more than 20 minutes at a time. If you have chronic upper back pain, heat therapy might be more effective. It can calm and relax your muscles, and increase blood circulation. Apply a heating pad for no more than 15 to 20 minutes at a time.
  • Get enough sleep. Lack of sleep can increase your stress level and make back pain worse. Aim for at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. Create a comfortable sleep environment and avoid stimulating activities before bed (ex. exercising, playing video games).
  • Exercise. Increasing physical activity can improve blood circulation, strengthen your back, and reduce inflammation. This can ease mild to moderate back pain. Aim for 30 minutes of light physical activity at least 5 days a week.

When to call a doctor

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Some upper back pain might improve on its own with home remedies and over-the- counter medication within a few days or weeks.

Call a doctor for any back pain that doesn’t improve or worsens. Your doctor can use diagnostic tests such as X-rays or MRIs to determine the underlying cause of pain, and then recommend an effective treatment course.

The bottom line

Back pain can be debilitating, impacting your quality of life and causing you to miss work.

Pain relief is available, though. Whether you’re dealing with an injury, an inflammatory condition, or nerve problems, talk with your doctor. The right therapy can reduce inflammation and stop the pain.

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