Upper back pain has causes ranging from acid reflux to heart problems to a number of cancers.
Most back pain is caused by a musculoskeletal issue.
But for many people, acid reflux is behind their upper back pain. How is this possible?
“When acid is absorbed into the lining of the esophagus it can irritate nerves such as the vagus,” says Andrew Black, MD, Diplomate of the American Board of Internal Medicine & Gastroenterology who practices with GI of Norman in Oklahoma.
“The pain signals travel to the brain on some common conduits which can also be used by other parts of the body (chest, back etc.), thus creating the sensation of pain arising from those areas.”
If back pain is sudden and searing, this would not be caused by acid reflux, but more likely a compressed nerve in the spine.
If back pain that’s sudden and severe occurs while you’re lifting or straining physically, then you can attribute this to a spasming or overloaded muscle.
However, if really bad back pain occurs in conjunction with chest pain, and especially also with nausea, sudden sweating and/or shortness of breath, this can signal a pending heart attack or one about to occur. Get to the ER.
Ripping or stabbing back and chest pain can signal a dissection of the heart’s aorta. Don’t waste a second getting to an emergency room.
Pain in the upper back caused by acid reflux would not be persistent; it would come and go (often related to eating certain foods) and also often be accompanied by heartburn or a slight burning sensation in the upper abdomen.
The symptoms would not be relieved by rest, since they are caused by the stomach’s acidic contents refluxing up the esophagus.
And here’s something to consider: It’s entirely possible to have two unrelated conditions that are causing your upper back pain:
One may be acid reflux and one may be any number of other conditions that can cause discomfort in the back, including some cancers.
See a doctor if the discomfort or aching persists despite trying conservative measures to eliminate it.
Dr. Black has presented many GI-related research papers at national conferences. He is an active member of Norman Regional Hospital, and West Norman Endoscopy Center.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer.