Most people experience back pain at one time or another. However, the way the resulting aches and pains are diagnosed or treated will depend on the specific part of the spine they affect. Location may also play a role in how symptoms are experienced and which supporting muscle groups, bones, joints, and nerves are affected. Here’s a closer look at some notable differences between upper and lower back pain, brought to you by the trusted Los Angeles spine surgeons at The Spine Institute.
Because the lower back supports multiple movements and absorbs more stress than any other part of the spine, it’s the most common source of chronic pain. This area also has the least support structurally, which means discs and joints in the lumbar (lower) back area are more likely to become worn, damaged, or injured.
The upper spine, on the other hand, is rarely the primary source of back pain. This is because the thoracic spine is protected by the rib cage, which, in turn, supports the body’s vital organs. The upper spine is less vulnerable to damage from:
- Age-related wear and tear (degenerative disc disease)
- Impacts from daily movements
- Strained or irritated muscles
There’s research suggesting more occurrences of upper back pain among teenagers and adolescents compared to what’s normally experienced within other age groups. The same study this research is based on notes that older children are more likely to experience upper back pain than their younger counterparts. One possible reason for this is because backpacks tend to get heavier during the high school years.
Differences in chest anatomy could explain why girls are more likely than boys to experience upper back pain that’s muscular in nature. Lower back pain is different because the related symptoms tend to be more noticeable later in life. This is often the case with spine-related pain involving:
- Narrowing of the spinal canal (spinal stenosis)
- Progressive changes in spinal disc shape due to reduced hydration
- Underlying conditions like arthritis and diabetes
3. You’re Less Likely to Need Surgery for Upper Back Pain
Generally, surgery is a last resort for any type of back pain, but this is more likely to be the case with upper back pain. There are several possible reasons for this, including the fact that the thoracic spine is more difficult to access than the lumbar spine because of the various structures and organs in the way. A closer proximity to the heart and lungs also increases the risks associated with surgery.
Additionally, spine surgery is unique because it’s typically not performed unless a clear structural source has been identified with image tests. This is less likely to happen in the upper back area. For this reason, thoracic spine pain that’s not responding well to non-surgical methods is likely to result in further diagnostic testing to confirm or rule out other possible pain sources that may include:
- Autoimmune diseases
- Damage to the heart and/or lungs
- Issues with the gallbladder and other mid-body organs
- Nerve compression in the neck that may be affecting the upper spine
There are also some similarities between upper and lower back pain worth noting. Certain contributing factors, such as poor posture, a lack of sufficient sleep, not eating nutritious foods, and a lack of regular exercise can affect joints, soft tissues, and nerves in and around all parts of the spine. Another similarity is that conservative treatments such as physical therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes may provide sufficient relief regardless of where spine pain originates.
Some instances of back pain may be severe enough to require a procedure such as spinal fusion surgery. Los Angeles patients can rely on Dr. Hyun Bae to diagnose the source of their pain and help them find effective relief. Call The Spine Institute today at 310-828-7757.