Stretching out your upper back can help alleviate some of the stiffness that comes with sitting at a desk all day.
Upper back pain is most often caused by poor posture and muscle imbalances in the shoulder blades, which result in muscle soreness and tension. Gentle stretching can help you regain mobility and balance and increase blood flow to affected areas. Stretching can also help you relax as you recover from upper back pain.
6 stretches for upper back pain
1. Shoulder roll
- Raise your shoulders straight up while standing.
- Roll your shoulders forward 5 times in a circular motion.
- Roll your shoulders backward 5 times in a circular motion.
- Repeat 2-3 times a day.
2. Forward and backward tilt
- Straighten your spine, aligning your head with your upper back, while standing or sitting.
- Gently lower your chin toward your chest.
- Relax into the position and count to 20 before returning to the starting position.
- Tilt your chin up toward the ceiling.
- Relax into the position, count to 10, and then return to your starting position.
- Repeat 2-3 times a day.
3. Side tilt
- Rest your arms at your sides while standing with your feet hip-width apart.
- Drop your head to your right shoulder as though you were resting your ear on it.
- Do not raise your shoulder to meet your ear. You will feel the effect on the left side of your neck.
- Once you feel the stretch, stop tilting your head and hold for 10 seconds before returning to the starting position.
- Repeat on the other side, this time dropping your left ear toward your left shoulder.
- Repeat 5 or more times.
4. Overhead arm reach
- Extend your right arm straight above your head and reach to the left while standing or sitting with your feet hip-width apart.
- Hold for 15 seconds after bending your torso until you feel a stretch in your right shoulder.
- Return to the starting position and repeat 5 times with the right arm.
- Switch arms and repeat the process with your left arm.
5. Child’s pose
- Get on your hands and knees in a tabletop position.
- Spread your knees apart while keeping your big toes together.
- To lengthen your spine, sit up straight (avoid overarching or slumping forward).
- Hinge your hips forward, placing your torso between your legs.
- Extend your arms in front of you, palms down on the ground.
6. Standing arm slides
- Place your ankles, buttocks, shoulders, elbows, and wrists against a wall (your palms should be facing outward).
- Slide your arms out to the sides and up as far as you can while keeping your elbows and wrists flat against the wall.
- Once you have gotten as high as you can, hold for 5 seconds before slowly lowering back to your starting position.
- Repeat 10 times.
How to perform upper back stretches safely
Before you begin stretching, make sure you understand how to stretch correctly and safely to avoid injuring yourself. Here are some tips for safely performing upper back pain stretches:
- Stretch frequently throughout the day, taking breaks from sitting. It is recommended that you get up and move around at least once every hour.
- Warm up with gentle exercises, such as walking or climbing stairs, and do some breathing exercises before stretching.
- Hold static stretches for 10-30 seconds. Dynamic (moving) stretches should be performed without bouncing and at a slow pace. Bouncing can cause the muscles to tighten even more.
- Stretch only to the point where you can begin to feel it, not to the point of pain.
- Continue to breathe normally during stretching.
- Concentrate on major muscle groups, such as your calves, thighs, hips, lower back, neck, and shoulders.
How to relieve upper back pain
Besides stretches and exercises, other ways to relieve upper back pain include:
- Rest: Sometimes all your muscles need is rest. You may have been so preoccupied with housework or working out that you neglect getting rest, resulting in muscle pain. Take frequent breaks and change your position if you are sitting all day at work. Staying in one position for too long can lead to a rounded shoulder, which will aggravate your pain even more.
- Apply a hot or cold compress: Apply a cold compress to your back for 10-20 minutes at a time, using an ice pack or ice wrapped in cloth. Allow at least 2 hours between compress sessions. If you prefer, use a heating pad for 15-20 minutes per session. Do not exceed 1 session every 2 hours. To protect your skin, place a layer between your skin and the compress.
- Take painkillers: If you need quick pain relief, take some anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen or naproxen.
If none of these remedies work and your pain is persistent, consult a physical therapist to determine the source of your discomfort. You may have arthritis or other pain issues that should be evaluated by a doctor.
Hospital for Special Surgery. 5 Back and Neck Stretches to Do Every Day. https://www.hss.edu/article_back-neck-stretches.asp
South Carolina Spine Center. Back Exercises. https://scspinecenter.org/south_carolina_spine_education/back_exercises.html
Michigan Medicine. Upper and Middle Back Pain. https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/aba5320
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