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How Foam Rolling Can Improve Upper Back Health

by Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT October 30, 2019 0 Comments

Foam rolling the upper back has great potential for promoting spine and overall health. This very affordable, common tool can be bought for home or found in most gyms.  A foam roller may be just what you need to amplify your health and workout routine. 

Benefits of Foam Rolling

  • Circulation

    Focused pressure in problem areas promotes blood flow. This helps promote any necessary healing, recovery, relaxation, and/or pain relief.

  • Joint Mobility

    A foam roller is an excellent tool for gently mobilizing the upper spine. This is great for the mid-back since it is an area notorious for stiff and immobile joints due to overuse and poor posture.

  • Tissue Flexibility

    Focusing on large achy and tight muscles can help restore range of motion throughout the body and decrease soreness. Just make sure to focus on muscles rather than the joints themselves.

  • Self-Myofascial Release

    The myofascia is a fibrous connective tissue that interlinks and supports the muscles throughout the body.  It can become inflexible, resulting in pain and poor movement patterns. Slow focused foam rolling can help release some of these tight areas.

  • Posture

    Train and stretch your spine in different positions with various techniques to prevent or treat the effects of poor posture.

  • Strengthening

    The cylindrical shape provides a dimension of instability for exercise. Thus, it can promote core strength and balance.

  • Pain Relief

    Promoting circulation, tissue flexibility, good posture, strength and balance all ultimately provide a better quality of life via pain relief.

Is Foaming Safe for Your Back?

  • For the mid-back, foam rolling is safe

    Foam rolling the upper back is a great way to relieve pain and stiffness. The thoracic spine tolerates foam rolling well and can be done safely. The proximity of the ribs and shoulder blades provide rigidity and safety for the internal organs.

  • For the lower back, foam rolling is not a good option

    The lower trunk does not have bone support but rather depends on core muscle stability. Thus, foam rolling can pose a risk to internal organs, particularly the kidneys. Plus, the lumbar spine is not a comfortable area to roll.

If you’re not sure about foam rolling for your mid-back or other larger muscles groups (usually in the legs ), talk to your doctor (a physical therapist or orthopedist) first for proper medical advice.

Find More Upper Back Pain Treatment and Relief Options

    Best Foam Roller Exercises

    Techniques for the Mid-Back

    Most simply, you can lie on the foam roller horizontally for 20-30 seconds while taking deep breaths. Then move up and down to reposition the roller to find trouble areas as needed. From there, you can progress your focus (and coordination) with the following options.

    Thoracic Pivots

    Lie on your back with the foam roller placed horizontally under your mid-back, knees bent and feet flat on the ground. Bring your hands behind your head (careful not to pull on your neck) or cross your arms over your chest. Then push the spine down into the foam roller as you arch your mid-back (not the low back). For best results, focus on deep breaths (breathe out as you push down).

    Keep the movement slow and controlled. You can adjust your upper body position to target different areas in the mid-back. Complete the move 10-15 times at each problem spot.

    Back Roll

    Lie on your back in the same starting position as above. With your hands behind your head (keeping the elbows as far apart as possible), lift your butt off the ground and begin to slowly roll and and down the entire mid-back.

    Roll up and down 10-15 times while focusing on staying relaxed. Do not roll on the neck or low back. You can always stop and address a particular problem area (such as a knot or trigger point) with the thoracic pivot stretch explained above.

    Shoulder Techniques

    The foam roller can also be placed vertically, along the spine. This will help stretch the shoulders and spine simultaneously, while staying in a neutral position. Lying down with your knees bent is a great place to start. Focus on keeping your arms resting on the ground. If comfortable, you can then start playing with the position of your arms to get a good chest and shoulder stretch. From there, you can progress to the following options.

    Snow Angel

    Place the foam roller vertically under the spine, bend your knees and place your feet on the floor for balance. Start with the arms relaxed at your sides, touching the floor with the palms facing up. Then start to lift the arms up, as if making a snow angel. Make sure to keep the hands on the ground the entire time. Go as far as you can comfortably go, with the goal of reaching your arms overhead to touch. If you feel strained, pain, or have to lift your arms off the floor to reach this position, then modify your range to be smaller.

    Complete 10-15 times, focusing on staying relaxed. Work on increasing your range as you can.

    Lat Rolls

    Start by sitting on your knees with the foam roller lying horizontal to your side. To stretch your left side, bring your left arm up over the roller as you place your left side against the roller at about chest level. First, try gently rolling your body forward and backward on the roller. You can also try lifting your body off the ground and rolling up and down along your side. Switch sides.

    Repeat 10-15 times in each direction if comfortable.


    When and How Often?

    Using a foam roller is about optimizing your workouts and pain relief. Find what works best for you and aim for 10-15 minutes, 1-4 times per day. You might choose up to 4 times per day if you are trying to treat and recover from a specific injury or problem area.  Here are some options to consider:

    • Before a workout to warm-up.
    • After workouts to help with recovery.
    • Before bed to promote relaxation.
    • Right after a shower or bath, when the muscles are warm and relaxed to better address stiff, painful areas.
    • On a work break to reset your posture and promote movement.

    Do’s and Don’ts for Foam Rolling


    • Be aware of your body

      As you’re rolling, you may notice areas that feel bumpy or grisly under the roller. These are the areas in your muscles and connective tissue that could use the most help. Stop and focus on these areas when you find them!.

    • Pick the right type of foam roller

      For the upper back, a smooth, stiff, 6” diameter, 36” length roller typically works best. If you are sensitive to pressure you may consider a softer option. There are rollers with different textures, but they are less versatile when trying to use it for the mid-back.

    • Move with control

      Focus on staying relaxed, taking deep cleansing breaths, and minimizing any muscle guarding. A little pain or discomfort is okay as long as you can stay in control of these.

    • Use adjunct modalities

      To further promote healing and relaxation, consider options like massage,  hot and cold therapy, TENS units, and pain cream.

    • Ask for advice

      Talk to a physical therapist, personal trainer, or other exercise professional for personalized options and address your concerns.

      Massage for Upper Back Pain


    • Avoid using it on most joints and the low back

      Foam rolling puts excessive strain and stretch on smaller joints like the knees, ankles, and elbows. Focus on muscle bellies and the trunk of the body for the best results without causing injury.

    • Forcing it

      If your pain is increasing, symptoms are worsening, or you feel uncomfortable, listen to your body and stop. Sharp, shooting pain should especially never be tolerated.

    • Overdoing it

      Start slow and small when you start using a foam roller. Try one 5 minute session, with no more than 30 seconds of focus on each spot (unless it’s just a stretch). Gradually build time and frequency to what works best for you.

    When to Avoid Foam Rolling?

    Contraindications for foam rolling include:

    • Osteoporosis

      Excessive pressure can increase your risk for fracture.

    • Trauma

      If you are having upper back pain due to trauma, such as a car accident, make sure issues like fracture and spinal cord injury have been ruled out first.

    • Excessive Muscle Guarding

      An inability to relax the back muscles will only exacerbate symptoms.

    • Cancer

      Do not apply pressure or treatment to active cancer areas.

    • Severe Neurological Symptoms

      Rapid onset of numbness, shooting pain, or weakness in the limbs is indicative of nerve root or spinal cord damage that could be worsened with improper movement.

    • Recent surgery

      Get permission from your surgeon before proceeding with any treatment program for your spine.

    Take Precaution

    Upper back pain is a multifaceted issue that can result from issues throughout the entire spine.  Foam rolling is a great way to address this notoriously stiff, sore area. When done consistently, and properly you will notice quick results for pain relief and treatment.  If you’re unsure about foam rolling for your upper back pain, always consult your doctor or physical therapist before starting.


    Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT
    Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT

    JayDee Vykoukal is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, owner of the healthy habit platform Health Means Wealth, and freelance medical writer. She loves traveling and spending time with her family in nature. Her passion is helping others continue to participate in the activities they love through education and proper exercise.

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