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How Does Stretching Help Upper Back Pain?

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

Mid-back pain tends to come with a lot of stiffness in the neck, chest, shoulder blades, and trunk. Stretches for upper back pain can help alleviate some of this inevitable stiffness. Upper back pain is most commonly caused by issues with poor posture and muscle imbalances in the shoulder blades that lead to muscle soreness and tension. Gentle stretching can help restore balance, promote awareness of your body’s alignment, and increase blood flow to areas that are affected. Stretching can promote relaxation as you attempt to recover from upper back pain.

    Back Stretches

    Seated Trunk Rotations

    Seated in a chair with good posture. Clasp your hands together by interlacing your fingers. Rotate toward your left side while bringing your chest toward your thighs and hands toward the floor. Go as far as is comfortable before returning to a sitting position. Then move in the exact opposite position, rotating to the right while bringing the arms up and over the right shoulder. Stay slow and control making sure to keep the movement comfortable. Repeat to the other side.

    Complete 10-15 times on one side before switching to the other side.

    Quadruped Rotation

    Get on your hands and knees. While keeping the knees in place (no movement), bring the butt back slightly toward your heels to lock the low back in place. Then, lift one hand off the ground and reach it behind your head. You will then rotate that entire side of the body as if to look up at the ceiling. Move back and forth 10 times. Then switch sides.

    Thoracic Rotation Stretch

    Lie on your side with the legs together and knees bent. This is the starting position. How far you bend your knees will depend on your comfort and what area you are trying to target. In general, the higher your knees are up toward your chest, the higher in the thoracic spine (and usually more intensely) you will feel the stretch. Keeping your hips stacked on top of each other, you will place your top hand on your side just above your hip, but below the rib cage, and then rotate your upper body back toward the floor. Stop if your hips start to move or the movement feels forced.

    Find a comfortable stretching range, hold around 30 seconds on each side, 2-3 times. Alternatively, you can try a slow rhythmic motion as well.

    Thoracic Extension

    Sitting comfortably in a sturdy chair with a back (no wheels for this one). Bring both hands behind your head, then lean backwards into the backrest of the chair and start to gently arch the back over it. You should feel a stretch in the area that is pressed again the backrest. If you’re particularly stiff, the motion may feel awkward and small, which is okay. You might even get some relieving cracks. To change the area you are stretching, simply scoot your butt further away from the chair so that the backrest is hitting your back in a higher spot. Try to keep your lumbar spine from arching and your ribs from flaring upward too much.

    Hold 5-10 seconds, 10 times.


    For a more intense version of this stretch, try lying on the floor with the knees bent. Position a foam roller horizontally under the spine where you want to focus the stretch, just like you did with the backrest.

    Posture Stretches

    Backward Shoulder Rolls

    Bring your hands behind your back and clasp them together. Start to straighten your arms as you push your chest forward and up toward the ceiling. This will naturally cause the back to extend, the chest to open, and the shoulder blades to come together. Try to focus on extending the upper back more than the lower back. You can play with your head position to increase the stretch further by lifting the chin up, as long as it doesn’t cause neck pain. Ultimately, you should feel a stretch across the entire chest.

    Focus on deep cleansing breaths, hold up to 30 seconds 2-3 times.

    Laying Arm Extensions

    Roll up a small towel and place it horizontally on the floor (when you lie down the towel will go across the back from left to right). Lie down on your back with the knees bent, bringing your arms out in front of you at a 90-degree angle. Take in a deep breath, as you exhale bring the arms up overhead as far as is comfortable, before returning with the next inhale.

    Play with the position of the towel depending on which area is the back feels most stiff. You can also make the towel roll bigger or smaller for comfort. Complete 10-15 times 2-3 times per day.

    Prone W

    Lying on your stomach with arms outstretched in front of you, gently lift the chest off the ground. You will then begin to bend your elbows, bringing them down toward your butt as you squeeze the shoulder blades together. Make sure to keep the neck relaxed and minimize excessive extension in the low back. You should feel the back muscles working throughout the shoulder blade region.

    Squeeze the shoulder blades and hold 2-3 seconds. Repeat 10 times for 2-3 sets.

    Thoracic I, Y, and T Foam Roller Stretch

    Lie on your back with the foam roller under the entire spine (including the head). Keep the knees bent and feet on the floor for balance. Bring your arms up directly in front of your face. Then, bring them out to the side to touch the floor in a “T” (shoulders at 90 degrees) and back to the returning position. Next, bring them up in a “Y” position toward the floor as far as is comfortable before again return to the beginning. Lastly, bring the arms up overhead into an “I” and return.

    Move slowly, alternating between the 3 positions 10 times. If you find a position that gives a particularly relieving stretch, you can stop and hold it for up to 30 seconds. 

    Neck Stretches

    Chin Tucks

    What position you begin this exercise depends on your comfort and coordination with postural exercise. It can be completed either lying down on your back, sitting, or standing. No matter what position, you will be focusing on the subtle motion that comes from the upper neck to tilt the chin. You will gently tuck the chin down toward the chest as if to give yourself a double chin. The position of your eyes should remain relatively stable. It will most likely feel awkward and result in a relieving stretch at the base of the skull.

    Hold this position for 2-3 seconds before relaxing. Repeat 10 times. Complete 2-3 times throughout your day to help combat slouching.

    Neck Flexion and Extension

    Sitting in a chair, focus on keeping good posture as you alternate between bending the entire neck forward (face toward the floor) and backward (face up to the ceiling).

    Try alternating between the motions, while following your breath, up to 10 times. (Breath in- go one direction. Breath out- go the other). You can also hold the stretch and breathe for 30-60 seconds if it is comfortable. Lastly, you can add overpressure to each stretch with gentle use of your hands.

    Seated Cervical Rotation

    Sitting in a chair with good posture, gently rotate your head to one side as far as is comfortable and hold. You can apply light overpressure in that direction with your fingers as well.

    Hold 30-60 seconds, 2-3 times on each side.

    How Often Should I Stretch?

    Your exercise and stretching program should be very specific to your individual needs. You should find stretches that help you feel relaxed, rejuvenated, and better able to participate in your daily activities. If you are particularly stiff, you may find stretching helpful every day. Whereas, if you are pretty flexible (or even hyper-mobile) in your joints and connective tissue, you will want to stretch sparingly and gently only as needed. The key is finding a balance that works for your life and your body. Ultimately, there is no right answer. If you want a more individualized answer for your stretching needs, talk to a physical therapist.

    When to Stretch?

    A lot of the stretches listed above are ones that can be easily added into your day. They can be used to take period rest breaks from prolonged time at a computer, car or in any other position that we typically take. You may also find them useful to complete after a workout, before bed for relaxation, or at the beginning of the day to wake up and start your day. Incorporating your stretches and other healthy habits into your day in a way that makes sense to you will make it significantly more likely that you will stay consistent with them.

    Tools that can help the stretching process:

    Safe Stretching

    As you may have noticed with these stretches, there is a lot of overlap for effective stretches in the spine. Due to its interconnectivity, treating the spine can be a complicated one. If you are ever uncomfortable or notice a significant change in symptoms, particularly nerve type symptoms, always make sure to seek medical advice immediately.

    For more stretches that may be of benefit, consider adding more cervical and lumbar specific stretches too:

    Stretches for a Cervical Herniated Disc

    Stretches for a Lumbar Herniated Disc


    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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