Upper back pain may be a sign of cancer that has spread to the spine. However, many other conditions can cause pain in the upper back, such as arthritis or a herniated disk.

Some types of cancer may cause upper back pain. Certain cancers may also start in the spine, or others may spread there from other parts of the body.

Although upper back pain can be a sign of some cancers, it can also be a symptom of many other health conditions.

This article discusses upper back pain with lung, spinal, and pancreatic cancers. It also discusses other possible causes of upper back pain, including some other kinds of cancer.

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Most lung cancers do not cause symptoms until it has spread from the lungs.

Bone metastasis is when lung cancer spreads to the bone. Some of the most common bones for it to spread to are those in the spine. It may then often cause back pain in the mid-upper spine, also called the thoracic spine.

Learn more about lung cancer.

Back pain can be a symptom of cancer that has spread to the spine. This type of cancer is called metastatic spinal cancer, spinal metastasis, or secondary spinal tumors. It spreads to the spine from cancer that originated elsewhere in the body.

According to research from 2023, approximately 30% of people with cancer develop spinal metastasis, and 70% of these spinal metastases affect the thoracic (mid-upper) spine.

Primary spinal cancer is cancer that develops in the cells of the spine or the areas immediately around it. Primary spinal cancer is rare. Most primary spinal cancer tumors are benign (noncancerous).

However, back pain may be a symptom of some tumors.

Learn more about spinal cancer.

Back pain is one common symptom of pancreatic cancer. Cancers that start in the pancreas can press on the nerves around the organ, causing back pain.

However, people typically feel pain from pancreatic cancer in their lower or middle back rather than their upper back.

Learn more about pancreatic cancer.

Myeloma is a type of cancer that develops from cells in the bone marrow. Bone marrow is the inner tissue inside some large bones. Symptoms of myeloma can include bone pain in the back and shoulders.

Other types of cancer may spread to the spine, causing pressure on the spinal cord. This pressure can stop the nerves in the spine from working normally. This is called spinal cord compression (SCC).

Back pain is a common symptom of SCC, and usually the first. It can be in any part of the back, spine, or neck.

About 3 to 5 in 100 people with cancer develop SCC, according to the nonprofit Cancer Research UK. Although almost any type of cancer can spread to the spine and cause SCC, types of cancer that are more likely to do so include:

Other causes of upper back pain include:

  • inflammation and microtears in the muscles, tendons, and ligaments of the upper back
  • arthritis
  • herniated disks
  • vertebral stenosis
  • misalignment in the thoracic or cervical spine
  • repetitive motions or stressful postures over time

People should contact a healthcare professional about upper back pain if the pain does not improve after a few weeks.

Also, a person should contact a healthcare professional immediately if they have any of the following symptoms:

  • back pain after an injury or fall
  • back pain with:
    • fever
    • trouble urinating
    • unexplained weight loss
    • weakness, pain, or numbness in the legs
  • severe back pain that does not get better with medication
  • tingling and numbness

Symptoms of spinal cord compression (SCC) can include:

  • leg weakness
  • numbness
  • loss of bladder or bowel control

If a person has symptoms of SCC, they should seek emergency medical care.

The following are answers to some questions people frequently ask about upper back pain.

How do I know if my upper back pain is serious?

Upper back pain may be considered serious with certain symptoms, after recent traumas or accidents, or some medical histories. People should seek professional medical attention if they have upper back pain that does not improve with medication or within a few weeks.

What organ can cause upper back pain?

People may experience upper back pain due to passing kidney stones or pancreatitis. Pancreatitis is when the pancreas becomes inflamed.

A person may also have pain or discomfort in their back during a heart attack. People having heart attack symptoms should call 911 or local emergency services immediately.

Upper back pain may be a sign of cancer that has spread to the spine from elsewhere in the body. Cancer that develops first in the spine is rare but may also cause upper back pain.

Several other health conditions can also cause upper back pain. People should talk with a healthcare professional and seek medical advice if they have upper back pain.

Some cancers can cause spinal cord compression (SCC), which is a medical emergency. People with symptoms of SCC or heart attack should seek emergency medical attention.