Stretches and Exercises to Help Ease and Prevent Upper Back Pain

Medically Reviewed By Danielle Hildreth, CPT
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Many people experience upper back pain. It can happen because of stress or changes in posture. You can help relieve upper back pain by stretching and building up the muscles that support the neck, shoulders, and back. Regular stretching can help keep muscles flexible and strong. Tighter and shorter muscles can put you at a higher risk of injury because the muscles may be too weak or not able to fully extend.

Read on to learn some stretches that can be beneficial for your upper back.

Benefits of upper back stretches

a trainer is helping a person exercise on a mat
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One of the main benefits of upper back stretches is that they can help improve posture.

A common cause of upper back pain is poor posture. In fact, a study found that people experiencing long-term pain in their shoulders and backs experienced reduced pain as they increased their awareness of their posture.

A 2015 paper explains that poor posture can worsen if you spend a lot of time sitting down. This is because there is more pressure on the spine if you are in a seated position. The paper went on to cite several studies wherein participants had seen a reduction in back pain after starting an exercise plan involving stretching.

However, some causes of back pain may not completely resolve due to stretching. These causes include:

For some of these conditions, such as osteoarthritis, gentle stretching may help ease upper back pain. However, it is important to speak with a doctor for a correct diagnosis and treatment plan.

In some cases, some stretches may worsen the cause of the back pain, so a doctor can help identify whether it is safe for you to complete these exercises or not.

Stretches and exercises for the upper back

Try the following stretches and exercises to help alleviate and prevent upper back pain.

Chest and arm stretch

a person is performing a chest and arm stretch

This exercise is great for relieving pain due to tight shoulders. Stand with your arms by your side for this stretch.

  1. Keep your spine straight as you clasp your hands together behind you.
  2. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and roll your shoulders backward.
  3. Hold this position and relax.

Repeat this stretch several times.

Shoulder roll

a person is performing a shoulder roll

You can perform this exercise while standing or sitting.

  1. Stand with your arms at your sides.
  2. Roll your shoulders forward, upward, and back. Repeat this circle 5 times.
  3. Reverse the circle, rolling your shoulders backward, upward, then forward. Repeat this 5 times.

Pectoralis stretch

a person is doing a pectoralis stretch

For this stretch, stand in an open doorway.

  1. Raise your hands until they are just above the level of your head. Your elbows will be bent at a 90-degree angle.
  2. Place your elbows on either side of the door frame at the same level.
  3. Step one foot slightly forward and begin to lean your bodyweight through your arms. Stop when you feel a stretch in the front of your shoulders.
  4. Hold this stretch for 15–30 seconds. Try repeating it 3 times.

You can perform this exercise with one arm at a time if the doorway is too wide.

Wall arm slide

a person is performing a wall arm slide

Stand with your back against the wall for this stretch.

  1. Make sure your elbows and wrists are touching the wall.
  2. Slowly move your arms outward and upward, never letting your elbows and wrists lose contact with the wall.
  3. Do this motion 8–12 times, and repeat twice.

Lying shoulder squeeze

For this exercise, lie on your stomach with a pillow underneath your chest. You can use a yoga mat or blanket for added comfort.

  1. Extend your arms out to either side, with your elbows bent at a 90-degree angle, and your thumbs pointing upward.
  2. Lift your arms slowly toward the ceiling, picturing your elbows leading the movement. This will mean you need to squeeze your shoulder blades together.
  3. Lower your arms with care.
  4. Repeat this movement 15 times before taking a break.

Repeat the sequence 3 times for better results. As you practice this movement, you can build on your strength by holding small weights.

T-spine twist

For this exercise, start on your hands and knees. Your shoulders should be directly above your wrists and your knees should be hip-width apart.

  1. Move your right elbow up toward the ceiling, with your hands touching your neck.
  2. Twist your spine so that your right elbow comes toward your left hand.
  3. Repeat this several times, and switch to the opposite arm.

If you find you are forcing the stretch, it is OK to keep the movement small. You can build it up over time so that your elbow raises further toward the ceiling and the twist deepens.

Arm and leg raise

Get onto your hands and knees for this exercise. Use a yoga mat or blanket for added comfort on your knees and hands if you need to.

  1. Activate your abdominal muscles by pulling in your belly button. Keep them activated for the whole exercise.
  2. Raise one arm in front of you with your thumb facing up, as if you are reaching to shake someone’s hand. At the same time, extend the opposite leg behind you while keeping your hip bones facing the ground and your core engaged.
  3. Hold for 5 seconds before lowering slowly.
  4. Complete the same movement with the opposite arm and leg.
  5. Repeat this 10 times on each side.

Cat-Cow Pose

a person is performing cat-cow pose

Start this exercise on your hands and knees with your knees hip-width apart and your wrists directly underneath your shoulders. You can use a yoga mat or blanket.

  1. Make sure your abdominal muscles are activated and start with your spine as flat as possible.
  2. As you breathe out, round your spine and look downward, keeping your spine aligned. Hold it for 10–15 seconds.
  3. As you breathe in, drop your stomach toward the ground, arching your back and allowing your shoulder blades to move together. Look upward. Hold for 10–15 seconds.

Child’s Pose

a person is performing child's pose

Use an exercise mat to ease the pressure on your joints.

  1. Kneel on your mat and widen your knees so they are touching either side of the mat.
  2. Activate your abdominal muscles and pull your shoulder blades together but do not arch your back. Place your hands on the mat out in front of you with care.
  3. As you exhale, move your glutes toward your heels, sitting back, and moving your chest toward the ground.
  4. Hold this for 5–10 breaths, keeping your breathing slow and mindful.

Upper back exercises and stretches at your desk

You can complete the following exercises while sitting at your desk. Back pain and poor posture from prolonged desk time are common, so completing these every so often throughout the day can help prevent recurrences of upper back pain.

Thoracic extension

You can do this stretch while sitting down on a chair.

  1. Clasp your hands together behind your head, with your elbows pointing to the sides.
  2. Slowly arch your back and shift your gaze upward.
  3. Repeat 10 times.

It is best to repeat this stretch several times a day, especially if you work at a desk.

Squeezing the scapulas

You can do this exercise sitting at a desk or standing up.

  1. Make sure your arms are by your sides.
  2. Squeeze your shoulder blades together.
  3. Hold this position for 5 seconds and then relax.
  4. Repeat 15 times.

Repeat this exercise twice for better results.

Preventing upper back pain

If your upper back pain is happening because of an underlying condition, it may not be preventable. However, you can discuss ways to prevent recurrent back pain or reduce the severity of the pain with your doctor.

If there is no underlying cause for your upper back pain, the following prevention methods may help:

  • If you are working at a desk, set a timer to remind you to stand up and take a short walk regularly, even if that just involves refreshing a cup of coffee.
  • Stretch throughout the day, especially if your job involves sitting down for long periods of time.
  • Try to become more aware of your posture throughout the day.
  • Always warm up your muscles before stretching or exercising.
  • When lifting heavy objects, make sure you are not bearing the full weight of the object in your back muscles. Bend your knees and use your glutes to help you lift objects safely.
  • Try massages if you are experiencing tension in your shoulders.
  • Avoid loading too much weight onto the back, such as carrying heavy bags.
  • Consider purchasing a high quality pillow or mattress to support your upper back as you sleep.

When to contact a doctor

Always contact a doctor if you feel concerned about your upper back pain. If you are experiencing pain that does not go away with improved posture and stretching, seek medical help.

Your doctor may diagnose an underlying condition that is causing the pain. This means they will be able to recommend the most effective treatment depending on the cause.

A doctor may also refer you to a physical therapist for extra information on exercises that can help ease your pain.

Summary

Upper back pain is common, especially among people with poor posture or those who spend prolonged periods of time sitting down.

Regular stretching can strengthen the muscles, as well as make the upper back and shoulders more flexible. This means upper back pain may be less likely to occur.

However, upper back pain may be the result of an underlying condition. Contact your doctor if you are concerned about the pain, or if the pain is severe or long lasting.

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Medical Reviewer: Danielle Hildreth, CPT
Last Review Date: 2022 Jan 27
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