Upper back pain is rarely a sign of cancer. More often, it’s a symptom of a different underlying condition that may require treatment.

Back pain is very common, affecting an estimated 39% of adults in the United States. While upper back pain is usually due to a variety of different causes, it can sometimes be a symptom of cancer.

Below, we’ll explore why upper back pain could be a sign of cancer, other common causes of upper back pain, and when to contact a doctor.

There are different reasons that upper back pain may be a sign of cancer. Let’s explore these in more detail.

Cancer affecting the spine

Upper back pain could be due to cancer if there’s a tumor directly affecting the spine. Overall, primary cancers starting in the spine aren’t common. However, the spread of cancer (metastasis) to the spine is more common.

The spine is the most common site for bone metastasis. The thoracic spine, which corresponds to your upper back and torso, is the most common site for spine metastases.

Examples of primary cancers that most often spread to bone include:

If cancer has spread to your thoracic spine, it can cause pain in your upper back. Other potential cancer signs and symptoms include:

  • weakened bones that are more prone to breaking
  • compression of the spinal cord, which can not only cause back pain, but can also lead to:
    • weakness or numbness in your abdomen or legs
    • difficulty moving your legs
    • bladder or bowel incontinence
  • high blood calcium that may cause symptoms like:
    • fatigue
    • constipation
    • frequent urination
    • extreme thirst
    • muscle weakness
    • muscle and joint pain

Other primary cancers

Several other primary cancers may cause upper back pain. However, these cancers typically have other symptoms that are more common than upper back pain.

Cancers of the upper abdomen often cause upper right quadrant pain. But as these cancers grow, they can irritate nearby nerves, causing pain that may radiate to the upper back or shoulder. This has been reported for cancers such as:

Also, other cancers may press on surrounding tissues, leading to upper back pain. Some examples of these cancers include lung cancer, esophageal cancer, and stomach cancer.

Multiple myeloma can affect bones in the back, leading to upper back pain. Upper back pain has also been recorded as a rare feature of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Common causes of upper back pain

If you’re having upper back pain, it’s more likely that the cause is noncancerous. Some examples of more common causes of upper back pain include:

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Upper back pain due to cancer can feel differently depending on the type and location of the cancer. It may also have overlapping symptoms with other conditions that cause upper back pain.

If cancer has spread to your spine, you may feel bone pain where the affected bones feel tender or achy. This type of pain typically also:

  • begins slowly and may come and go initially
  • gradually gets worse as time passes
  • is typically worse at night
  • is often still present at rest

If upper back pain is due to a cancer like liver or pancreatic cancer, you may also feel pain in the upper right quadrant of your abdomen. This pain may radiate to your upper back or shoulder. It may have a variety of qualities, such as:

  • dull aching pain
  • sharp, stabbing pain
  • tingling or electric sensations

Cancers pressing on nearby tissues may cause pain under certain conditions. For example, upper back pain due to lung cancer may get worse when you take a deep breath while esophageal cancer back pain may be worse when you swallow.

Many times, upper back pain isn’t due to cancer. However, even if cancer isn’t causing your upper back pain it could be occurring due to another condition that needs to be managed.

Some symptoms that signal that it’s time to contact a doctor include upper back pain that:

  • continues to persist for more than a few weeks
  • isn’t relieved or gets worse while using home remedies or over-the-counter medications
  • interferes with your ability to do daily activities
  • happens with any of the following symptoms:
    • pain that radiates to another area

Seek emergency medical care for any upper back pain that:

Upper back pain can potentially be a sign of cancer. It may happen due to cancer that starts or has spread to the spine. Other types of primary cancer may also lead to upper back pain, often in rare cases.

Upper back pain due to cancer can vary based on the type and location of cancer and may mimic other noncancerous conditions. Most upper back pain happens due to things like stress and strain, osteoarthritis, or disc problems.

Nevertheless, it’s important to contact your doctor for any upper back pain that’s persistent, interferes with your quality of life, or happens with symptoms like numbness and tingling or unintended weight loss.