Nearly everyone has uttered these words at one point or another: “I carry everything in my shoulders.” “My upper back is so tight.” “I need a massage.” Luckily, unlike lower back pain, upper back pain is rarely serious and generally not related to joint or disc problems, says Elizabeth Manejias, M.D., a board-certified physiatrist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.
More often than not, upper back pain comes down to inflammation in the muscles and connective tissues in your neck, shoulders, and upper back, says Dr. Manejias. “When poor posture and weakness of the stabilizing muscles of the shoulder and upper back exist, the muscles can become strained with overuse, leading to the development of myofascial pain.”
Here’s your fix-it plan—plus the best upper back-pain exercises and stretches to add to your workout routine.
7 Lifestyle Changes to Ease Back Pain
Yep, what you do when you’re not working out can make a BIG difference. Consider these habit changes for upper back-pain relief.
Get a massage.
Your instinct for pampering as a method of upper back-pain relief is spot-on: Massages—whether they’re from a professional or a foam roller—can help ease pain in the connective tissue, called fascia, that wraps around every muscle. Trigger point release, through treatments including acupressure and acupuncture, can also help, says Dr. Manejias.
Rework your workspace.
One American Osteopathic Association (AOA) survey found that two in three office workers have experienced job-related pain in the last 6 months, including shoulder aches and lower- and upper-back pain. To prevent all three, the AOA recommends positioning your computer screen so that the top of it is in line with your eyes and is tilted up slightly, and that you are seated at least a foot and a half away from it. (You should only move your eyes, not your head, when working on your computer.) Also, your elbows should be at your sides and your forearms parallel to the floor to prevent shoulder scrunching. Whenever you’re stuck on a conference call, Dr. Manejias suggests listening on a hands-free device. Pinning your phone between your head and your shoulder can overwork and tighten your shoulder’s muscles. (Psst…wireless headphones, including your go-to pair for running or your fave noise-canceling pair, can also help.)
Text at attention.
You put 60 pounds’ worth of pressure on your upper spine every time you look down at your phone (and bend your neck to a 60-degree angle), according to research from New York Spine Surgery and Rehabilitation Medicine. That’s like having a second grader hanging on your neck. So stand up straight when you’re texting! The less you tilt your head down, the less strain you’ll put on the muscles and connective tissues in your neck, shoulders, and upper back.
Establish an exercise routine.
“Regular exercise can help maintain proper strength and flexibility of the upper back in addition to the targeted exercises previously mentioned,” says Dr. Manejias. “A program such as Pilates can help build up the scapular stabilizing muscles and core strength.” This can go along way in preventing upper-back pain.
“Maintaining a neutral spine alignment at night is important in order to avoid sleeping in a position that stresses the joints and surrounding musculature,” she says. Neutral alignment allows for the three gentle curves you have in your spine. If you’re a side sleeper, remember that your spine should stay in a straight horizontal line throughout the night, she says. If your pillow jacks your head up or your mattress lets your hips sag, it’s time to replace them.
Try to stress less.
“Stress and anxiety management are important in reducing muscular tension and pain,” says Dr. Manejias. “Activities such as mediation, deep breathing, tai chi, and gentle yoga practices may also help reduce stress and encourage heightened body awareness, in order to avoid dysfunctional postural and muscular habits.”
The rowing exercise, whether you are using a cable machine, resistance band, or an actual rower, should be a regular part of any exercise program, she says. Rowing is one of the best upper back-pain exercises because it strengthens your lats and trapezius muscles.
Upper Back-Pain Exercises and Stretches
Strengthen and stretch these areas to improve your posture and loosen tight, crunched-up muscles.
1. Strengthen your shoulder blades.
The shoulder blades (aka scapulas) glide along your rib cage and rely on the surrounding muscles to do so smoothly and without pain, says Dr. Manejias. So if shoulder movements make your upper back sore, you may benefit from upper back-pain exercises that strengthen those muscles. While sitting, squeeze your shoulder blades together. Hold for five to 10 seconds, and repeat two to three times per day. Easy peasy.
2. Stretch your pecs.
If you’ve got a tight back, you probably also have a tight chest, she says. Stand in a corner with your arms against each wall and slightly above your head. Move close to the wall until you feel a slight stretch along your chest. Hold for 15 seconds and repeat three times. Make this—and all these upper back-pain exercises—a regular part of your workout routine (and feel free to skip these dangerous or ineffective stretches).
3. Strengthen your trapezius.
The trapezius extends from the base of your skull through your shoulders and into your middle back, so any weaknesses in it can result in wide-reaching pains, explains Dr. Manejas. To strengthen it, try this upper back-pain exercise: lie on the floor on your stomach, and extend your arms straight out to your sides with your elbows straight and thumbs pointing up. Squeeze your shoulder blades together to raise your arms off the floor. Pause at the top of the motion, then lower back down slowly. That’s one rep. Complete three sets of 15 reps.
4. Stretch your thoracic area.
The thoracic region of your spine sits at chest height and connects to your ribs—and it’s rarely stretched. While sitting with your hands clasped behind your head, gently arch your upper back and look up toward the ceiling. Repeat 10 times, several times a day, says Dr. Manejias. It’s easy to complete at the office, in bed, or between workouts.