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Managing Upper Back Pain When Sitting

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

Woman holding a lumbar cushion on the chair

The average person spends a large majority of their sitting for both work and home life. How you are actually sitting during this time will play a large role in determining your body’s health. As the days goes on and fatigue sets in, injury, pain, and muscle imbalances are more likely to become an issue. Managing upper back pain when sitting can be combated with good posture awareness and finding ways to minimize a sedentary lifestyle.

Why Does Sitting Cause Upper Back Pain?

Too much sitting is a common cause of upper back, or thoracic spine, pain. Those who sit for long hours, especially office workers, are prone to back and neck pain. When you assume any sitting posture for too long, muscles get fatigued. The body has a hard time managing any one posture continually. With too much sitting, this typically leads to a slouched posture Unfortunately, slouching puts a lot of strain on the joints, muscles, and other surrounding connective tissue. Additionally, it puts our spine and muscles in positions that they are not meant to hold for long periods of time. This leads to muscle imbalances, joint strain, muscle strain, and ultimately the onset of pain.

Symptoms Caused By Poor Posture When Sitting

  • Upper back, neck and shoulder pain
  • Chronic headaches
  • Muscle spasms and stiffness of the spine, shoulder blades, and chest
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Weakness of the neck, shoulders, and shoulder blades
  • Inability to tolerate sitting for longer periods of time

How to Prevent Upper Back Pain from Sitting?

Improve Workplace Ergonomics

Your normal spinal curves should be well supported. This means starting with good lumbar support, either built into a chair or with an added lumbar cushion. The spine naturally makes an “S” shape, with slight extension in the low back (arched), flexion in the mid-back, and extension again in the neck.

This “S” can easily get too exaggerated with poor posture. However, on the other side of the spectrum, sitting with the spine perfectly straight can lead to pain and issues with shock absorption as well. It’s all about finding that sweet spot in the middle.

  • Adjust Your Chair & Desk

    Set your desk up so that it adequately supports your spine and makes it hard to slouch. To start, if you’re chair doesn’t offer any support, consider purchasing a lumbar cushion. From there, other important factors include: forearms at the same height as the keyboard, both feet flat on the floor (or use a footrest or seat cushion ), and your monitor at eye level.

  • Adjust Your Posture

    Avoid leaning to one side or slouching forward. Ultimately, your spine should be relatively flush with the back of the chair, arms at your side, head level, and legs uncrossed. When set up properly, good posture might feel awkward at first but it shouldn’t be painful or feel too forced. It will be a little different for each individual person. If you are struggling with keeping good posture even with a proper set up, you can also consider wearing a posture brace periodically to start training your muscles while at your desk.

Take Breaks from Sitting

Getting up and moving during the workday can improve back health.  Plus, it has the added bonus of creating a sense of well-being and increasing productivity.  Try to take a 5-10 minute break from your sitting at your desk every hour. You can simply stand up, go for a small walk, or try a little stretching.  Set an alarm if you need a reminder to get up and move periodically.

Stretches for Upper Back Pain

Yoga Poses for Upper Back Pain

Utilize a Standing Desk

A standing desk is a great option for taking longer breaks out of your chair. It can potentially reduce the risk of weight gain, promote better posture, and improve overall work life satisfaction. The best options are easy to adjust so that you can frequently switch between sitting and standing. If you plan to stand for longer periods of time, you may consider purchasing an anti-fatigue mat to minimize risk of low back pain and leg fatigue.

Strengthen Your Upper Back

You can help restore balance to your body after a day of sitting with specific exercises. They will help strengthen your back muscles and improve flexibility while promoting blood flow and pain relief. Exercises should focus on the core, neck muscle balance, chest flexibility, and the shoulder blades.

Find Exercises for Upper Back Pain Here

Other Tips to Manage Back Pain When Sitting

  • Multitasking exercise

    If you’re stuck at your desk or some other sitting activity, try adding movement to it. You can squeeze your muscles (think butt, shoulder blades, etc.), march in place, or ride an adapted desk bike . There are so many benefits since it can help with productivity, weight loss, and pain relief.

  • Pay attention to your posture everywhere

    Don’t neglect your posture when you get in the car, plop onto the couch after work, or crawl into bed. Make sure you are still thinking about your posture to keep your back happy.

  • Be more active

    An active lifestyle is beneficial for postural balance and minimizing the inherent risks that come with sitting too much. Try to add more activity to your days when you don’t have to sit.


Our bodies are great at telling us what they need. This is why pain is common with poor posture. It’s our body alerting us to the problem. If you listen and provide it support with proper equipment and a balanced exercise program, you will minimize your risk of onset of pain.

You don’t need anything fancy, the most important part of back support is awareness in knowing how.

If you are unsure where to start or are struggling with a set up, talk to a physical therapist or other healthcare professional for personalized recommendations and medical advice.

Don’t let prolonged sitting time and poor posture affect your quality of life and work productivity. With these simple recommendations, you will be able to prevent, treat, and recover from any issues with back pain.


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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