Upper Left Side Back Pain | Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment

We all have looked at cats and wondered how can they possibly sleep in those acrobatic postures and still be the athletic selves that they are. We can only hope to sleep with our necks and backs half in the air and be up and running the next day like it’s another bright and shiny day to look forward to. 

Unfortunately for us, even the slightest irregularity in our posture or an incorrect sleeping position can cause severe neck and back pain and hinder every little plan that we might have for the next day. Stabbing pain in the upper back and left side is usually caused by poor posture, prolonged contraction, or stiffening of the back muscles. It can however have a lot of reasons and can be diagnosed easily. The upper left back pain when moving in females can be due to hormonal changes in various stages of their lives as well. The treatment of the female upper left back pain can range from simplistic procedures at home to surgery if left unattended.

Upper Left Back Pain - Is this Common 

If you spend any extended time hunched over a computer or phone, chances are you’ve experienced some form of upper back pain. Even as an athlete the chances of getting hurt in the thoracic region i.e., the upper region of the spine is high. Though the upper left side back pain is less common than lower back pain or neck pain, a study posted to Occupational Medicine indicated that 1 in 10 men and 1 in 5 women suffer from upper back pain.

Because we use our back for almost everything, it is an incredibly important part of the human body. Working or walking, is essential in almost everything we do every day. However, it is also an incredibly delicate part of the body as well. Even minor injuries can leave us feeling pain and discomfort for months, or even years and impact our daily lives. Upper left back pain is difficult and annoying to deal with. It can be both frustrating and puzzling, especially when the cause is unknown.

Upper back pain is especially vital because it works with your ribs to keep your body stable and protect vital organs such as your heart and lungs. Often pain in the upper back can be an underlying cause of something serious in the vital organs of the body. Something which may seem like a regular pain can turn out to be a health hazard if not given due care. 

Upper left back pain causes 

Upper left back pain can be due to the spine but sometimes it may not be related to the back at all. Organs, including kidneys and the pancreas, can cause pain that spreads to your upper back. The type of pain depends on the cause. It might feel like a continuous, dull ache or a sharp and sudden pinch. It may come and go with rest or activity. Overly rigid posture “correction” may also be a cause of back pain.

Minor upper back pain on the left side can get better on its own. But if the pain is caused by a chronic condition, it might persist until you get treatment. It also has the potential to come from something much more serious, like a heart attack or even lung cancer. Major causes are discussed below:

Poor posture

The aftermath of the pandemic has made jobs be primarily conducted from home and the work is focused on screens and chairs. Slouching in a chair over a desk without taking breaks causes a loss of strength in the muscles. With the unavailability of a proper workstation for a large number of people, slouching worsens causing pressure from gravity and the body itself to push on the spine, neck, discs, and ligaments. Over time, this pressure can lead to pain and other complications.

The weakening of muscles may lead to pain as they experience strains or irritation. Slouching causes an unaligned spine and body making for poor posture which also creates pressure and stress on your back muscles. Hunching over a phone or standing with the pelvis tucked out also leads to strain. The prolonged strain on the back here is evident which results in upper back pain. 

Muscle injuries

Improper lifting technique, continuous stress on muscles by irregular intense workouts, overusing back muscles by repeating the same motions over time, or any form of muscle injury are other causes of upper back pain. Such strain can cause tightness, irritation, and headache too. These symptoms are most often overlooked causing chronic pain in the back.

Disk herniation

Discs in the spine are soft, rubbery cushions that act as soft “shock absorbers” between vertebrae. If ruptured or herniated, the discs bulge, putting pressure on the spinal nerves and triggering pain. This however can be difficult to diagnose because in some cases, there are no noticeable symptoms. Otherwise, pain, numbness, and weakness can also occur in the upper left back region.  This also progresses at night or by walking or running.

Bone spurs

Bone spurs or osteophytes are bony lumps that grow on the bones of the spine or around the joints. It is caused when the cartilage that protects the bones wears down, removing the cushion between the bones leading to pain. It can happen anywhere but the spine is most commonly affected where it causes numbness or tingling in the arms and the legs.

Spinal stenosis

The narrowing of spaces within the spine is called spinal stenosis which can put pressure on the nerves of the spine. It is also caused by bone spurs. It may have no symptoms but sometimes can be identified by neck pain or pain, weakness, or numbness in arms or legs. If untreated, it can cause serious and permanent damage. 

Indirect Symptoms of Upper Left Side Back Pain

The symptoms of the upper back pain can be identified at different locations also and are important to know the location and intensity of such symptoms. 

When pain starts in the upper left abdomen and spreads to your back, symptoms like these can occur:

  • muscle strain
  • kidney stone 
  • pancreatitis 

If while breathing there are the following symptoms, it can be due to back pain:

  • muscle strain
  • severe scoliosis
  • vertebrae fracture

Pancreatitis may cause upper back pain after having a full, greasy meal as well. Gallbladder stones can cause pain between the shoulder blades as well as in the back. 

Sometimes upper back pain combined with other symptoms can be a cause a serious health problem. Such symptoms include spinal tenderness, swelling, or bladder problems. Back pain combined with numbness around the groin, significant leg pain, loss of bowel/bladder control, and paralysis can be due to a serious nerve condition called cauda equina syndrome which involves nerve compression of the end of the spinal cord. 

Risk factors

While upper back pain is often the result of acute trauma or repetitive motion injury, some factors will make you more susceptible:

  • Smoking- It slows down the blood flow to the spine. If there is an injury in the back while you are smoking, the pain will be more intense and more difficult to heal.
  • Excess body weight- It can put pressure on the spine which can lead to soreness in later life.
  • Lack of physical activity- It can weaken the muscle over time and can cause intense pain in the core muscles.
  • Increasing age- It can cause wear and tear in the spine and can cause scoliosis or other back-related conditions.

Other risk factors that can intensify the back pain include:

  • Depression and anxiety 
  • Fibromyalgia 
  • Paget’s disease
  • Poor posture
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Stress and anxiety
  • Excessive lifting or carrying
  • Participating in contact sports
  • Family history of back pain or spine disease
  • Congenital (present at birth) or acquired back deformities (such as scoliosis)

Diagnosis

The doctor may perform a physical exam, feeling the tenderness in the back. They might want to know if moving hands in different directions and rotating causes any pain or limits the movement in any way. Reflexes and strength are also checked.

The doctor might also:

  • discuss your medical history
  • ask about your symptoms and the time of onset of such pain
  • ask to describe the pain as sharp, dull, or achy
  • ask if the pain is constant or does it come and go
  • ask if other symptoms like weakness or numbness persist
  • enquire if the pain hampers the daily activity

They may also request a:

  • blood test to check for blood cell counts and electrolytes
  • X-ray
  • CT scan
  • MRI
  • Bone scan if osteoporosis or a bone tumor is a possibility

Upper left back pain treatments

Back pain can be light to severe and sometimes the immediate remedy to relieve some pain is the one we can do at home. The home treatments best for minor back pain are:

  • Pain medications- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like naproxen, acetaminophen, and ibuprofen may provide relief.
  • Hot and cold packs- A hot pack or cold pack can relax painful back muscles.
  • Light physical activity. A gentle activity like walking and stretching might help with minor back pain. The pain can worsen if muscles aren’t put to use.

If upper left back pain is severe, a doctor might suggest a medical treatment, such as:

  • Prescription medication- If OTC medication doesn’t work, a doctor may prescribe muscle relaxers, prescription pain medication, or cortisol injections  
  • Physical therapy- A physical therapist can help you do back-strengthening exercises. They may also use electrical stimulation, heat, or other techniques to relieve pain.
  • Surgery- In rare cases, surgery might be required for structural issues like spinal stenosis or bone spurs, or a bulging disc.
  • Specialized procedures- For certain conditions, such as kidney stones, pancreatitis, and heart attacks, case-specific treatment at a hospital may be required.

How to prevent upper back pain

Prevention is always better than cure. It’s better to start early and start right. There are many things to keep the spine and back healthy.

  • Practice good posture as often as possible, especially when you are working and staring at a computer for hours at a time, it is essential to take breaks to stretch and walk around. The muscle strain and fatigue of sitting at a desk add to poor posture and can make you more likely to experience upper back pain. 

  • Maintain a healthy weight by exercising and eating a balanced, healthy diet. Including greens in the meals, avoiding fast food, and drinking more water can take you a long way.

  • Use proper technique when lifting or working out. Do not change the intensity of exercises suddenly. Exercise at a pace you can maintain regularly. Exercises may also improve strength in the back, and using a standing desk can help, too. It is possible to condition the muscles to be stronger and more durable when trained right.

  • Avoid smoking. It reduces the blood flow and can trigger pain.

Frequently Asked Questions

What organ is in the upper left back?

The upper back is the area between the base of the neck and the bottom of the ribcage. There are 12 bones that make up the upper back, which is called the thoracic spine. The first bone of the upper back begins at the base of the neck, and the 12th bone ends just below the ribcage. Upper back pain can appear anywhere between these bones.

When should one worry about upper back pain?

If the upper left side back pain is severe, if your range of movement is severely restricted without improvement, then visit a doctor.

You should also seek medical help after an injury or if you experience:

  • numbness or tingling
  • intense pain after a sports injury
  • fever along with pain
  • trouble breathing
  • unexplained weight loss
  • difficulty urinating

What causes upper left back pain in females?

Along with back sprain or strain, spinal injury to vertebrae or spinal nerves, diseases like osteoporosis and disc disease, arthritis, a medical condition like a bladder or kidney infection, and hormone fluctuations during pregnancy also causes back pain in females. Spinal disc degeneration also accelerates due to declining estrogen levels post-menopause. 

Other causes of upper back pain are poor posture, like slouching or pushing the head forward while sitting or standing, causing misalignment of the spine, muscle overuse, or strain, usually due to repetitive motions or lifting items or children incorrectly.

Is surgery needed for left side back pain?

Surgery is highly dependent on what the doctor perceives the next step after diagnosis should be. Most causes of upper back pain are cured at home or by some way of physiotherapy. Surgery is only done when the reasons for pain are too severe. It is done to repair fractures, remove bone spurs, cure spinal stenosis, or remove a bulging disc. 

Treatment cost of the upper back left side

The cost of spine surgery in India ranges from INR 60,000 to INR 4,50,000 depending on the complexity and the hospital you choose. The operations can be carried out by anterior, posterior, or lateral approach. The methodology opted by the surgeons to operate is also a factor affecting the cost of the surgery.