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Easy Massage Techniques for Upper Back Pain

by Patty Weasler, RN October 30, 2019 0 Comments

Woman using massage cane on her back

Benefits of Massage

The overall benefits of massage seem nearly endless. Pain relief without medication, minimal side effects, easily available, and if you use self-massage then cost is not an issue. If you are still unsure if massage for upper back pain is right for you here is a complete list to help you decide.

  • Manage stress
  • Improve blood flow
  • Pain relief
  • Faster recovery
  • Improve range of motion
  • Release adhesions
  • Overall relaxation
  • Increased endorphins, a “feel good” chemical in our brains

Best Types of Massage for Upper Back Pain

Upper back pain requires a trained massage therapist who knows the correct massage techniques to deal with the aches and pains of upper back pain.

Swedish Massage

For overall tension relief and relaxation, Swedish massage, also known as a general massage, is the answer. With this type of massage, therapists use different massage strokes to loosen tight muscles. The pressure is less than a deep tissue massage and involves most of the body.

For an at-home Swedish massage, focus on your shoulders, neck, and upper arms. Use gentle pressure with long strokes to work out muscle tension. You should experience relaxation, increased blood flow, and lymphatic drainage.

Deep Tissue

During a deep tissue massage, a massage therapist uses significant pressure to push through the muscle to relieve upper back and neck pain. The deep pressure is used to release muscle knots and scar tissue. Some people find deep tissue massage to be too painful. Communicate with your massage therapist on how much pressure you prefer. Deep tissue massage is great for people with stiff shoulders, neck, and upper and low back pain.

To perform a deep tissue massage on your upper back you’ll need the help of a massage tool, such as a massage cane to press deeply into the soft tissue. With the massage cane, you’ll be able to knead those hard to reach areas. If you experience soreness after your back massage, try an Epsom salt bath to relax your muscles.

Trigger Point

A trigger point massage uses deep pressure on targeted areas of the muscle to perform trigger point release. These trigger points are tight knots in the muscle that cause pain in other areas of the body. You will likely find that your massage therapist will not massage your entire muscle but focuses only on a few areas with the goal of releasing your trigger point to provide relief to the affected area.

With only a small area to cover, performing trigger point massage on yourself can be quite simple. You’ll want to use a small, hard massage tool, like a lacrosse ball to help work on your trigger points. Focus on areas that are tight, with the intention of alleviating pain in a nearby area.

Myofascial Release

Myofascial release works on muscle fascia to produce pain relief. The fascia is a connective tissue that covers all of the muscles. With repeated injury and stress the fascia can bunch together and form knots. A massage therapist will find these knots and apply gentle, constant pressure to release them.

At home, you can do this massage technique using a foam roller. Foam rollers are inexpensive and portable making them a great at-home tool. Use your own body weight on the foam roller and slowly move up and down your muscles to release the fascia knots.

    How to Foam Roll for Upper Back Pain

      TENS Therapy

      Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), uses electrical impulses to disrupt the pain signal in nerves. This reduces the sensation of pain; however, it does not eliminate it. Users can also experience a decrease in swelling and muscle spasms with a TENS unit. It can be a helpful tool in relieving upper and lower back pain but will not solve the underlying problem. TENS, when used in conjunction with physical therapy, will allow the physical therapist to exercise muscles with reduced pain. With less pain and more physical therapy, recovery can be quicker.  

      Many TENS units are marketed for at-home use. These units can be a great addition to your pain relief regime. Read the manufacturer’s instructions before use and always consult with your doctor before starting TENS therapy.

      Hot and Cold Massage

      Massages that use hot or cold can be both relaxing and effective at managing back muscle pain. Heat is used as a muscle relaxer, reducing tension, and giving the patient an overall feeling of calmness. On the physical side, heat causes vasodilation of the blood vessels. This means that the vessels are relaxed and allow an increase of blood to flow through them. A massage therapist can use heat packs or hot stones in their practice to achieve vasodilation.

      Cold acts as a pain reliever and decreases swelling. It causes vasoconstriction, tightening of the blood vessels. This, like TENS, can disrupt the pain signal giving temporary pain relief. Your massage therapist might use ice cups or an ice pack to work on muscle knots or trigger points. If you want to perform cold massage at home, cold massage ball rollers will give you the cold you need without the mess of an ice cup.


      Acupressure therapists apply pressure to acupoints, which lie in invisible channels in the body, to restore the flow of qi, also known as the life force. Acupuncture applies the same theory but utilizes needles in the treatment. Acupressure sessions typically last an hour, with multiple sessions needed for full qi restoration.

      If you would like to perform acupressure at home, using an acupressure mat will allow you to access areas of the body you would be unable to reach. The mat lays on a hard surface and has multiple discs and spikes to help restore the balance of qi.

      How Often Should You Massage the Upper Back?

      Your and your massage therapist will need to determine the frequency of massage for upper back pain. Each person’s situation is unique regarding their health and goals. Likely, when you meet with your massage therapist they will suggest weekly sessions. The frequency will be adjusted based on your response. If pain returns after a few days then it might be time for another session. But if you are pain-free after a week then you should be able to space out sessions.

      When to Avoid Massage?

      Not all upper back pain can be treated with massage. You should first be evaluated by a doctor, especially if you have experienced an injury or have chronic conditions. If you suffer from conditions that are contraindicated, massage can cause further injury. Below we have listed some conditions and injuries that could prevent you from receiving a massage.

      • Recent Surgery

        Massage can be very helpful in improving healing times, reducing scarring, and anxiety after surgery. However, you need to ask your surgeon how long you need to wait after surgery before your first massage. Many patients need to wait until the acute recovery period has passed before their first massage.

      • Skin Infections

        If you suffer an active skin infection it’s best to avoid massage therapy. A massage therapist could acquire the infection, spread it to other parts of your body, and spread it to other people. Wait until your skin is completely healed then head in for a massage.

      • Blood Clots

        The pressure and hand movement of a massage therapist can cause blood clots to break free. If you have a history of deep vein thrombosis (DVT) or other clots be sure to check with your health care provider before a massage.

      • Bruising

        Pressure from a massage therapist can cause more bleeding beneath the skin and increased bruising. If your bruising is small let your therapist know and he or she may be able to work around it.

      • Muscle or Ligament Tears

        If you have recently injured a muscle, ligament or tendon let the acute phase of the injury pass before you receive a massage. The added pressure can interfere with healing. After some time and a discussion with your doctor, adding massage into your recovery can be beneficial to decrease healing time.

      Massage Precaution

      Massage can be an excellent, safe addition to your treatment for upper back pain. It is medication-free and is easily accessible with a trained massage therapist or in the comfort of your own home. Before you begin massage therapy, talk to your doctor to ensure that massage therapy is safe for you. We hope that you can use massage as part of your everyday lifestyle.


      Patty Weasler, RN
      Patty Weasler, RN

      Patty Weasler is a freelance health writer and nurse. She is certified in critical care nursing and has been practicing for over 10 years. Patty lives in Milwaukee, WI with her husband and three children. She enjoys spending her time with family and educating people about their health.

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