3 Exercises to Relieve Upper Back Pain

Back pain is a problem faced by people in day-to-day life, especially those teenagers and adults between the ages of 20’s to 50’s, occurring in the spine. Why might this back pain be occurring? Are there any possible steps to relieve upper spine pain? Structure of the Spine

The spine is the vertebral column or the backbone of the body. The back of the body connects various muscles, bones, nerves, tendons, and ligaments for which the spine acts as a support system.

This spine at the upper and middle back is called Thoracic SpineThe spine at the neck is the Cervical Spine, while the spine at the back is the Lumbar Spine.

This Thoracic Spine has 12 small bones numbered T-1 to T-12 called Vertebrae, supporting the upper part of the body. The bones below the Vertebrae are the Sacrum and Coccyx (tailbone).

The Vertebrae have an Intervertebral Disc playing the role of shock absorber, increasing the flexibility of the vertebral column to handle everyday tasks. The Spinal Cord runs through this vertebral column from the brain to the lower back (bottom of the spine).

Each Vertebrae connects to a pair of ribs which connect to a long flat bone passing centrally through the chest called a Sternum, forming a rib cage.

What is meant by Upper Back Pain?

Upper back pain with middle back pain usually occurs from the neck to the lower back (rib cage bottom). The pain at the upper and middle back of the spine is also called Thoracic back pain.

This pain is very uncommon in people as compared to neck pain and lower back pain. The reason is that the thoracic spine movement at the upper back is limited as the bones keep the back stable compared to the lower back and neck.

Also, the upper back keeps your posture upright and carries the upper body weight. A study from PubMed of the National Library of Medicine (NIH) reports the lifetime prevalence of upper back, neck, and lower back pain in men and women residing in Central Malatya.

How to relieve upper back pain?
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Upper back pain occurs very rarely, but it has severe pain. According to the severity of the pain, it may last several weeks to months. The person experiences irritation, tension, strain, and pain in the back muscles and tissues. The causes of upper back pain are as follows:

  • Poor posture: – Poor posture is due to sitting in front of a laptop or a computer for a prolonged time, driving a 2-wheeler or a 4-wheeler for a longer duration, or using mobile phones looking down, causing spine muscle tension.

  • Muscle Sprains and Strains: – Muscle sprains and strains result from carrying a heavy bag-pack or lifting some heavy object.

  • Disc Herniation: – Discs can become herniated after being injured or suffering from excessive muscle strain. Also, the disc degenerates naturally when the ligaments weaken when the person ages. According to  PubMedCentral of the National Library of Medicine (NIH), tobacco smoking causes disc degeneration.

  • Lack of Muscle Strength: – Improper or irregular exercise patterns can result in a lack of back muscle strength and pain.

  • Bone Fractures: – The spinal bones have a chance to break during accidents or with sudden injury due to sports.

  • Arthritis Problems: – Osteoarthritis that causes stiffness and joint pain can result in upper back pain.

  • Osteoporosis: – Osteoporosis weakens the bones and makes them fragile, resulting in upper back pain and breakage of bones.

  • Axial Spondylarthritis: A condition affecting the backbone of the spine that causes back pain, also called Ankylosing Spondylitis.

Upper Back Pain Symptoms

People experience upper back pain differently, depending on how and where they feel it. It can be mild, or due to injury or strain can make the pain feel worse.

A few symptoms that a person faces could be a burning or sharp pain in the back, backachesstiffness or tightness in the muscles, numbnessweakness or tingling, and diffusing pain along the nerve muscles.

How to relieve upper back pain?
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Risk Factors that Increase Upper Back Pain

With existing upper back pain, several risk factors contribute to aggravating the pain. Some of the risk factors are:

  • Acute injury: – A sudden injury that occurs with physical activity like sports injury affects back muscles, increasing back pain.

  • Overweight: – The spine carries the weight of the body’s TorsoTorso refers to the body’s organs and the backbone. Too much belly fat and heaviness in the upper or middle back strains the soft tissues and increases the pain. Alternatively, weight loss can help reduce pain. Data analysis from PubMed of the National Library of Medicine (NIH) states that weight management can alleviate musculoskeletal pain.

  • Psychological problems: – According to PubMed of the National Library of Medicine (NIH), depression may cause back pain.

  • Smoking: – Smoking habits can induce chronic back pain as Nicotine in tobacco reduces the blood flow, thereby lessening the nutrient flow to the spine and disc, resulting in disc degeneration. Quitting this habit can stop intensifying the pain further.

Upper Back Pain Diagnosis

Diagnosis of pain in the upper back usually starts with asking questions by a healthcare professional about symptomsmedical history, the level of pain, and daily activities. Then, the healthcare provider will perform a physical exam where they ask to sit, stand, lift, or bend the legs to check the pain.

The wellness professionals may do additional tests if required based on the detection. The tests are as follows:

  • X-ray:– X-ray images show the spine’s bones.

  • MRI Scans:– Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scan utilizes magnetic fields and radio waves to create pictures of muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments, and other soft tissues in the spine.

How to relieve upper back pain?
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  • CT Scans:– Computed Topography (CT) scans use a computer and X-rays to generate a 3D image of soft tissues and bones in the spine.

How to relieve upper back pain?
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  • EMG:-Electromyography (EMG) is a nerve study that tests the skeletal muscles and nerve damage in the spine.

  • Blood Tests:– Blood tests can show abnormal conditions that may cause back pain.

  • Bone Density Tests:– Bone density scan, called DEXA Scan, is used to check the strength and density of bones. The process uses low-dose X-rays to see how dense the bones are.

Home Exercises and Suggestions

Following a simple and disciplined exercise routine can help reduce pain in the upper back. Here are a few to consider.

Start with a Warm-Up

Before starting with actual exercise, loosen tight muscles with a warm-up to make the workouts more effective. It includes static stretching, aerobic activities, and dynamic stretches. An article from PubMed Central of the National Library of Medicine (NIH) discusses the benefits of static stretching during a warm-up.

Dynamic stretches include body movements where the muscles and joints are in motion. These are trunk twists, walking lunges, arm and hip circling, jumping jacks, leg swingssquats, or spot jogging or walking. Alternatively, a 5–10-minute cardio will also do dynamic stretching.

Static stretches are those when you hold on to one position for a particular time (approximately 30 – 45 seconds). It is common to perform these stretches after a workout. However, they can also do wonders as a part of a warm-up routine. It includes shoulder stretches, cat-cow stretchesbutterfly stretches, cobra stretches, knee lifting, touching toes, or a child’s pose.

Dynamic Stretching Exercises

Trunk Rotation

  • Lie down on the back, keep the knees bent, hands stretched, and feet flat.

  • Afterward, turn the head to the left and rotate the knees to the right.

  • Hold this position for a few seconds.

  • Bring the knees to the center and repeat the procedure for the left side. Perform this rotation on both sides a few times.

Trunk Rotation Exercise - Ask Doctor Jo

Cat-Cow Pose

  • Keep the palms on the floor, with the knees bent and the spine neutral. The palms should be under the shoulders, with the knees below the hips. It is called Table Pose.

  • Inhale and tilt the pelvis back, and drop the navel downwards. Gaze upwards slowly towards the ceiling. It is the Cow Pose. Be at this pose for some time.

  • Exhale and tilt the pelvis forward, and move the spine upwards. Draw the navel towards the spine and gaze downwards to the chest. It is the Cat Pose. Be at this pose for some time.

  • Repeat these two poses a few times (5 times each).

Cat Cow

Chair Rotation

  • Sit on a chair sideways, with the right side facing the back of the chair.

  • Rotate your upper body and waist towards the right side until there is a feel of a stretch at the upper back.

  • Hold on for a few seconds and repeat the procedure on the left side.

Knee-to-Chest Exercise Stretch

  • Lift the left leg while lying on your back, with knees bent, and bring it towards your chest in a gentle manner.

  • Take hold of the left leg for seconds, release the grip, and replicate the sequence with the right leg.

  • Now bend both knees and hug them towards the chest. Perform these sequences a few times as required.

Knee to chest stretching

Overhead Arm Reach

  • Sit on a chair, stretch the right arm above the head, and lean towards the left side until a deeper stretch feels on the right side.

  • Resume to the initial position and execute the same process using the opposite arm.

  • Alternatively, stand and stretch either arm or both arms upwards.

  • Keeping both arms straightened, lean towards the right side.

  • Return to the original position, and lean towards the left side with stretched arms.

  • Repeat this stretch either by standing or sitting a few times on both sides.

Home Exercises: Overhead Arm Reach

Neck Roll

  • Sit on a chair or stand erect by keeping the body straight. Tilt the neck to the right.

  • Then slowly roll the head clockwise or counterclockwise. Complete one rotation until you reach the starting position.

  • Repeat the steps by tilting the neck towards the left side. Roll the head either clockwise or anticlockwise.

  • Perform this rotation 2-3 times both ways.

How to relieve upper back pain?
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Thoracic Extension

  • This exercise requires a foam roller or a chair for the best results. While using a foam roller, place it under the thoracic spine.

  • Keep the feet on the ground keeping the knees bent. Extend the arms stretching wide to the sides with palms facing upwards.

  • While using a chair, sit on the chair facing forward and push the body to fall behind the chair.

  • Maintain this stretched position for a few moments and release. Repeat it 2-3 times.

How to relieve upper back pain?
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Shoulder Rolls

  • Stand erect or sit with arms relaxed to do a shoulder roll.

  • Gently lift the left and the right shoulder upward and start rolling them in a circular motion forward.

  • Repeat the process by rolling the right and left shoulder backward in the opposite direction.

  • Perform both sequences of moving shoulders backward and forward for 20-30 seconds.

Shoulder Rolls

Static Stretching Exercises

Child’s Pose

  • Start this yoga pose by sitting in Table Pose, where the big toes of the foot are together.

  • Bring your hips towards the floor, the buttocks touching the top of the feet and the forehead down.

  • Extend the arms straight ahead in front with the palms on the ground.

  • Do deep breathing for a few seconds and slowly return to the starting position.

How to relieve upper back pain?
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Shoulder Blade Squeeze

  • Sit on a chair with your hands on the thighs and feet on the floor.

  • Extend the arms, ensuring that palms are forward facing.

  • Move the arms back and squeeze the shoulder blades together.

  • Maintain the position for a specific time, then return to the initial state.

How to Improve Posture and Shoulder Pain: shoulder blade squeeze. Physical Therapists recommended.

Upper Trapezius Stretch

  • Begin by positioning on a chair or standing upright. Place the right hand behind the head.

  • Tuck the left hand at the back.

  • With the right hand, gently pull the head towards the right side.

  • Retain the position for some time and replicate the same for the opposite side.

Upper Trapezius Stretch - Ask Doctor Jo


Final Note

Pain in the upper back is rare, but if it occurs, it results in severe pain. Practicing gentle stretching, walking, strength training, and jogging helps maintain posture, improve blood flow, reduce pain, and also helps in reducing stress.

If pain persists, choose traditional home remedies like an ice pack or heating pad that helps reduce pain in the upper back. If home remedies don’t work, meet a physical therapist for treatment options. Physical therapy can reduce muscular tension and provide relief to the back.

Last Updated on December 25, 2023 by