What Causes Burning Sensation in Upper Back & Shoulder Blades?

By Andrew Yocum, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
March 24, 2022

There are many different types of pain—shooting, dull, aching, stabbing, and more.

Burning pain can be not just uncomfortable, but worry-inducing, leaving you wondering what’s causing  the stinging, prickling sensations. 

If you’re experiencing burning pain in your upper back or between your shoulder blades, you may be wondering just that: What’s causing this burning? And do I need to worry?

In this article, I’ll talk about some of the symptoms of burning pain in this area, and some possible causes, including poor posture, arthritis, spinal tumors and more.

I’ll also tell you what your next steps should be if you are experiencing burning pain in these areas, including when you should seek medical help, how you’ll be diagnosed, and what your treatment may look like, depending on what the root cause of your pain is determined to be. 

Symptoms 

Burning pain is often described as a stinging or prickling sensation—similar to the pins-and-needles feeling you get when your foot falls asleep, or the “zinging” sensation of an electric shock.

It can be uncomfortable and distracting, and can make mobility a challenge.

Many people experience this sensation in their upper back or shoulder blades. It can be felt in the neck, to the left and right of the spine, or radiating in towards the chest and down the arms.

Depending on the cause of the burning sensation, this pain can be accompanied by other symptoms.

These symptoms can impact the upper back and shoulder blades, or other systems of the body.

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Possible Causes

Poor posture

Prolonged periods of poor posture, such as hunching over a desk, can cause your spine to undergo real structural changes. Certain muscles may become weaker, while others are stretched and put under pressure.

This can also put pressure on ligaments and spinal discs. These postural changes can cause inflammation and lead to burning and tingling upper back and shoulder pain.

If you are confined to a chair for long bouts for work, make sure the chair has adequate support. For those working at home, dining chairs are not meant for long periods of sitting, and may not support the low back.

It can also be helpful to set occasional alarms on your phone or calendar as reminders to stand up, walk around for a few minutes, or even just as a reminder to sit up tall.

Stress

The tension from stress can manifest as burning pain, especially in the upper back, neck, and shoulders, as this is where people tend to hunch up.

Stress can be a cause of tension headaches, which often include pain in the neck, shoulders, and upper back.

Repeated bouts of stress, and the body strain that comes with them, can cause musculoskeletal issues.

If you’re feeling stressed out, or if you’re experiencing burning pain in the upper back, talk to your doctor about healthy ways to reduce stress in your life. 

Herniated or bulging disc

A herniated disc (also known as a bulging, slipped, or ruptured disc) refers to a condition where one of the soft, rubbery discs between the spinal bones pushes through a crack in the exterior casing.

This can occur anywhere along the spine, and can cause a burning pain if the disc begins pressing on one of the spinal nerves.

If the herniated disc is located in the upper half of your spine, you may experience this burning pain in your upper back, or between your shoulder blades.

A herniated disc can lead to permanent nerve damage. If you think you may have one, talk to your doctor immediately. 

Overuse or muscle strain

Muscle strain can occur when you overuse or injure your muscles—due to heavy lifting, exercise or sports, sudden or repeated movements, or other movements.

In these situations, the fibers of your muscles can stretch or tear. Injuries like this can occur anywhere in the back, and one of the symptoms is burning or stinging pain. 

Spinal stenosis

Spinal injuries, overgrowth of the bones in your spine, injury, and herniated discs can cause the spinal canal—the space in your spine that protects your spinal cord—to narrow.

This is called spinal stenosis, and it can create compression, crowding, or pinching of the spinal column.

This can create pressure on your spinal cord or on nerves that go from your spinal cord to your muscles.

The condition is more common in men than women, and typically affects the neck or lower back.

Aside from natural wear and tear from aging, injuries to the spine, spinal tumors, rheumatoid arthritis, and certain bone diseases can cause spinal stenosis.

Evidence of spinal stenosis can be seen on an MRI or CT scan.

Rheumatic diseases

Rheumatic diseases are autoimmune diseases that cause your body’s own immune system to attack and inflame joints, muscles, bones, and organs.

A number of rheumatic diseases can cause a burning sensation in the upper back and shoulder blades, including arthritis, osteoarthritis, polymyalgia rheumatica, lupus, and more.

Each of these diseases causes the immune system to target healthy tissues, leading to inflammation and subsequent pain in and around the area. 

Arthritis 

Arthritis, one of the rheumatic diseases listed above, refers to a group of over 100 diseases that cause swelling and irritation of the joints.

One type of arthritis that may be the cause of shoulder blade and upper back pain more specifically is spinal arthritis, which leads to inflammation of the joints in the spine.

Spinal arthritis can manifest as burning pain, and often becomes chronic. 

Dislocated rib

A dislocated rib, also known as a slipped rib or popped rib, is when a rib falls out of place or becomes misaligned. This is often caused by overuse or strain.

A dislocated rib can cause burning pain underneath the rib, and around the upper back and shoulder blade.

When this happens, it can make each breath you take feel sharp. 

Bone spurs

Bone spurs are smooth bumps of extra bone that grow on the edges of bones—especially in joints, where two bones meet. They are common in people over the age of 60.

While the spurs themselves are not painful, they can cause burning pain when they start to irritate the nerves and muscles around the joints, causing them to become inflamed.

One of the most common signs of bone spurs is pain in the neck and back. 

Heart condition 

Pain between the shoulder blades can be a sign or a serious heart condition, including a heart attack.

In a study from the Journal of the American Heart Association, scientists found that this type of pain was more prevalent in women who were having heart attacks.

If you are experiencing burning pain in the upper back or shoulders as well as other heart condition symptoms, see a medical professional right away.   

Spinal tumors

A spinal tumor is a growth of cells in or around the spinal cord that can be either malignant or benign.

These tumors can cause pain in the upper back and shoulder blades due to the weakening and/or expansion of the bones in the spine, which can cause pinched nerves, spinal instability, and even spinal fractures. 

Diagnosis 

When you go to a doctor with concerns over a burning sensation in your back or shoulder blades, they’ll most likely ask you a series of questions about your pain, your medical history, and your lifestyle.

The questions about your pain may include, but are by no means limited to, the following:

  • Have you recently injured your back or surrounding areas?
  • When did the burning sensation begin, and where did it start?
  • How has your functioning changed as a result of this sensation?
  • How would you rate your pain/discomfort on a scale of 1 to 10?
  • What other symptoms are you experiencing along with the burning sensation?
  • Do you or any of your family members have a history of experiencing this type of sensation?
  • Is there anything you do that makes this sensation worse or better?

Once they get a sense of what you’re experiencing, your doctor may diagnose you or do further testing to determine what is causing your discomfort.

This testing can include x-rays, MRI scans, CT scans, ultrasounds, bone scans, nerve studies, or blood tests, depending on what they suspect may be causing your pain.  

Treatment

A burning sensation will often go away on its own with rest and at-home care. If the pain persists, you may need special treatment.

Although your doctor will tailor your treatments to the exact cause of your pain, the most common types of treatment are as follows. 

OTC medication

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen and naproxen can help reduce inflammation, reducing the burning sensation.

An over-the-counter (OTC) topical pain reliever can also help, and can come in the form of a cream, ointment, or patch. 

Prescription medication

If an OTC medication isn’t doing enough to stop the discomfort, your doctor may suggest a prescription NSAID or prescription topical pain reliever.

If those still aren’t effective, they may prescribe another type of pain reliever. Talk to your doctor about the risks and side effects of these pain relievers.

Your doctor may also recommend a corticosteroid injection, which can help ease pain and swelling.

Physical therapy 

While medications help relieve symptoms, physical therapy can treat the underlying issues causing the burning sensation. It is especially useful for treating conditions like spinal stenosis, herniated discs, and arthritis.

A physical therapist can help improve posture, strengthen muscles, and increase flexibility, along with teaching you practices to make sure you don’t experience more discomfort in the future.  

Surgery

If all else fails, your doctor may recommend surgery for conditions like spinal stenosis, herniated discs, and bone spurs, which cause pain due to nerve compression. 

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When to See a Doctor or Healthcare Professional 

Though it often goes away on its own, a burning sensation in the upper back and shoulder blades should not be ignored, as it can be related to a more significant issue.

Keep track of your pain, and see a doctor or medical professional if it doesn’t go away, or gets worse over time. If the pain is severe, or is accompanied by other concerning symptoms, seek medical attention.

If you ever had back pain associated with chest pain, numbness, loss of bowel or bladder function, passing out, or fever, you should seek medical care immediately.

How K Health Can Help

Did you know you can access online urgent care with K Health?

Check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed, text with a healthcare provider in minutes. 

K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and is based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

What does it mean when you have a burning sensation in your upper back?
A burning sensation in your upper back can be caused by a variety of different things. Some can be easily addressed (stress, poor posture), while others will need more focused treatment (spinal stenosis, spinal tumors). To find out the root cause of your burning sensation, talk to a medical professional.
What does it mean when your back shoulders burn?
Much like with a burning sensation in your upper back, burning in your shoulder blades can be the result of several different situations—some concerning, and some with simpler remedies. Locate exactly where the burning sensation is located, and write down other information about your pain, including when it started, if anything makes it worse or better, and how it impacts you. Take this information to your doctor or another healthcare professional if the pain does not go away or gets worse.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Andrew Yocum, MD

Dr Andrew Yocum is a board certified emergency physician. He graduated Summa Cum Laude from Kent State University with a Bachelor of Science in Molecular Biology before attending Northeast Ohio Medical University where he would earn his Medical Doctorate (MD).

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