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Stretches and Exercises for Upper Back Pain


The thoracic spine – also referred to as the upper back or middle back, is a common area where people can experience pain. Upper back pain is less common than neck pain and lower back pain; some studies show that 1 in 10 men and 1 in 5 women might suffer from upper back pain at any one time. 

Upper back pain can occur from trauma (ie. car accidents, playing sports etc.) and from common housework activities (ie. gardening, house choirs etc.) to name a few. It can also be present without a mechanism of injury as the result of poor sitting postures, sedentary desk jobs, too much screen time, and an inactive lifestyle.

Fortunately, there are many exercises and stretches that can be performed to improve upper back pain.

Exercises to Ease Upper Back Pain

Upper back exercises can be very helpful for pain relief but also help build muscular endurance, which is very protective from developing aches and pains. The combination of improving your posture combined with regular upper back exercise can create significant improvements in most people suffering from upper back pain. At the Pain & Wellness Centre, we believe that a combination of stretches, resistance and mobility exercises will create great improvements in what you are experiencing.

Here are some of the exercises for upper back pain that can be done almost anywhere. As you attempt these exercises and stretches, focus on breathing deeply and never force any stretch or exercise. 

Corner Stretch

This exercise encourages healthy posture, and  is an effective way to loosen tight chest muscles, which can contribute to poor posture. 

Here are the steps to perform the corner stretch exercise:

  • Stand straight, facing any corner in your room.
  • Lift your elbows to the sides and place them on the adjacent walls (or door frame).
  • Ensure that the elbows are a little lower than the shoulders. 
  • Lean your chest toward the corner and hold for around 20-30 seconds.
  • Breathe as you hold the position in a relaxed fashion. You should feel a stretching sensation in both of your chest muscles.

This exercise can be repeated multiple times per day.

Wall Angel

This upper back mobility exercise strengthens the muscles of the rotator cuff and upper back, which help to improve your posture. It also helps to improve motion in the joints of your upper back. Here is how you perform the exercise: 

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, 6-12 inches away from the wall, and your back against the wall. Your arms should be resting at your sides.
  • Bend your elbows 90 degrees and rotate your arms so that your shoulders, arms and back of your hands are touching the wall in a “hands up” position.
  • Slowly move your arms up and over your head to form a wide “V” while maintaining contact between your elbows, hands and the wall. Only go as high as you can to keep the backs of your hands and elbows in constant contact with the wall.
  • Bend your elbows and lower your arms back to the starting positions by actively pulling your shoulder blades down.
  • Raise and lower your arms like this for two sets of 15 reps. You should feel your muscles working between your shoulder blades.
  • Make sure to breathe throughout the exercise and if there are points in the shoulder movements that are much tighter, spend time in those positions and breathe deeply through your belly. 

Note: If you have a previous shoulder injury and feel pain during the exercise, please do not do this exercise or consult with one of our Chiropractors to modify the exercise to suit your needs.

Seated Thoracic Chair Extensions

We tend to spend lots of time in a flexed forward posture whether we are on the computer, driving in our cars, sitting on the couch etc. Being in a flexed position for long periods of time can create stiffness in the upper back. Thoracic extensions can be a great way to improve mobility and decrease upper back muscle tension. To perform this exercise, you will need a regular chair with back support that ends at the area of your mid-back between the shoulder blades.  Here is how you perform the exercise:

  • Sit to the back of the chair and place your hands interlaced behind your neck and bring your elbows together in front of you. 
  • Extend over the back of the chair as far as you can comfortably go. You may feel increased tension in the area of the upper back. 
  • Return back to the normal seated position. Repeat for 10-20 repetitions and if you feel relief from this exercise, perform multiple times per day. 

Note: Feeling tension in the upper back is very common when performing this exercise. If you experience increasing pain or the pain moves away from the original site, please discontinue and consult one of our Chiropractors. 

Shoulder Controlled Rotations 

The shoulder joint is intimately connected with the upper back and the neck. Another great way to improve tension in the shoulders and upper back is through shoulder rotations. Exercises like these should be performed in a range of motion that is pain-free. Here is how to perform this exercise:

  • Stand straight with your arms down by your sides.
  • Start with one arm at a time.  
  • Raise one of your arms up in front of you with your thumb facing up until your arm reaches your ear. 
  • Rotate your arm inwards (with your thumb facing in front of you) and rotate your shoulder backwards while trying to limit rotation in your upper back and bring your arm back to the starting position.
  • Perform 10 rotations per arm in a slow and controlled way multiple times per day. 

Note: If you feel pain during certain parts of the rotation, decrease the amount of range your shoulder moves through. Start with smaller rotations and gradually build up to full rotation. Work through the range of motion you can comfortably control and increase over time. If you experience increasing pain or the pain moves away from the original site, please discontinue and consult one of our Chiropractors.

Neck Multi-directional Isometric Holds

Neck isometrics exercises can really help activate the muscles around your neck in a safe and gentle manner. Here is how you can perform this exercise: 

  • Sit in an upright position keeping your neck straight.
  • Press your palm against your forehead with 30-40% intensity. Resist your palm with your neck muscles. Hold for 10 seconds. Relax. 
  • Do the exercise again, pressing on the side of your head, keeping your neck straight. Resist your palm with your neck muscles. Hold for 10 seconds. Relax. 
  • Do the exercise again, pressing on the back of your head. Resist your palm with your neck muscles. Hold for 10 seconds. Relax. 
  • Repeat 3 times for each side of your head.

Overhead Arm Reach

An overhead arm reach gives you a method to stretch your lats and shoulders. For the overhead arm reach exercise, follow these steps:

  • Begin in a standing or sitting position and stretch your arms above your head.
  • Lean on the right while keeping both arms stretched upwards.
  • Gently pull your left arm using the right hand to deepen the stretch.
  • Return your arm to the starting position and repeat the process on both sides.
  • Hold position and take 2-3 deep breaths and perform 5 times per side.

Seated Cat-Cow 

Cat-cow exercises express your spine and let you relax the muscles that support it. Here is how to perform a seated cat-cow exercise:

  • Start in a seated position on the edge of your chair.
  • The feet should be hip-distance apart, with hands on your knees.
  • Take a deep inhale and lift your chin, gazing upwards.
  • Pull the shoulders back, expanding your chest.
  • Exhale, rounding your back, and tuck in the chin.
  • Repeat 10 times and this can be performed multiple times per day. 

Upper Back Stretches That Can be done at Your Desk

Sitting in front of an office desk for prolonged hours can cause upper back pain. Thankfully, the following stretches can help you prevent or treat the pain. 

Neck Rolls

For neck rolls, here are the steps to follow:

  • Sit upright, relax your shoulders, and place your hands on your lap.
  • Gently lean your right ear towards the right shoulder.
  • Roll your head forward in a circular fashion toward your chest while keeping your back upright until your head reaches your left shoulder.
  • Repeat going back the other way. 
  • Repeat the procedure 5-10 times in each direction.

Resistance Band Pull Aparts

Resistance band pull-apart exercises are exactly what they sound like. They work the muscles between the shoulder blades and can be effective to improve posture. You will require a resistance band tube or a TheraBand to perform this exercise. Here are the steps:

  • Stand or sit in an upright position and lift arms in front of your shoulder at 90. 
  • Place a band connecting both hands and with arms staying completely straight, pull your arms away from each other, approximating your shoulder blades until they are in line with your body. 
  • Return your arms back to the starting position. 
  • Repeat for 2 sets of 10 repetitions. 

How Can Chiropractors and Massage Therapists Help Relieve Upper Back Pain?

When you have upper back pain, having a comprehensive assessment, diagnosis, and treatment plan is very important to get to the root cause of your pain. Treatment will help alleviate the pain you experience, but if strategies are not created around the factors that may contribute to your pain (ie. poor posture, deconditioning, and other lifestyle factors), you may only experience temporary relief. 

At the Pain & Wellness Centre, our Chiropractors can effectively manage your upper back pain through various treatment modalities, including acupuncture, soft tissue therapy, joint & spinal mobilization/manipulation, and exercise rehabilitation. 

Our experienced massage therapists can also help decrease muscular tension in the upper back and neck, providing effective pain relief.

We would love to help you feel better and get back to meaningful activities. Contact the Pain and Wellness Centre today.

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