Treating Pain with TCM - Part 8: Upper Back Pain

Pain in the upper back falls into the region of the vertebra C7 to T12. Pain in the area after T12 is the lumbar area, which was discussed in Part 7. To keep things short, upper back pain is caused by the same problems as lower back pain. Those problems being age, injury, and tight muscles. Not including stress, which tightens the muscles and causes lower back pain, there is another condition that can cause upper back pain. That condition is the common cold.

upper back pain

In TCM, the common cold is caused by wind. More specifically, Wind stuck in the exterior level of the body. That Wind can get trapped in the upper back muscles, which can tighten up and cause pain. This can be exacerbated by Wind also being combined with Cold, Heat, or Dampness. Each type has a specific way it affects the muscles in the back.

Have you ever taken a walk in Autumn when a very cold breeze hits you in the back (or the back of the neck)? You bunch up your shoulders as a reflex.  This is an example of of how wind tightness up the shoulder and back muscles. Once you add cold, which holds and stagnates, your muscles stay tight, unable to relax. Lasting longer then just Wind by itself, that makes the pain more uncomfortable. If you add heat instead, it enters the muscles and moves upward, showing both back and neck pain. Lastly, Dampness makes the muscles feel slack, weak, and heavy. It's the heaviness that causes soreness and pain.


TCM treats upper back pain the same way as lower back pain. We use acupuncture, cupping, tui na, heat lamp, and herbs all help relieve pain and start the healing process. With a cold, you need to change things a little, as you need to adjust treatment to effect the cold as well.

Formulas for Upper Back pain from a cold:

Huo Ren Cong Chi Tang: Used for upper back pain from early stage exterior Wind.
Gui Zhi Jia Ge Gen Tang: Used for upper back pain from exterior Wind and Cold.
Sheng Ma Ge Gen Tang: Used for upper back pain from exterior Wind and Heat.
Du Huo Ji Sheng Tang: Used for upper back / lower back pain from exterior Wind and Damp.

Ge Gen, kudzu root, is the main herb used in treating muscle tightness from a cold. As a neutral herb, it can be used for either a Cold or Heat type and it helps clear the exterior of Wind. Each of the formulas above, except for Du Huo Ji Sheng Tang, use Ge Gen in them. As there's no tightness in the Wind Damp version, Ge Gen isn't needed.  Also, Ge Gen doesn't have the ability to clear dampness. Therefore, Du Huo (young angelica root) is a better choice, as it clears both the exterior and dampness.

Having a cold is never fun. Combing a cold with back and muscle pain feels makes you feel even more miserable. Getting rest, drinking fluids, eating well, and maybe some TCM can keep you comfortable until it passes. There is no "cure", your body just takes care of it itself. Pushing yourself through the pain and just dealing with it so you can work can make things worse. Go take a break for a couple of days until you feel better. You deserve it.