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Top exercises for upper back pain

October 31st, 2021 by
Category: Back pain Dr. Kodie Smith

woman holding upper back in pain

Upper back pain is described as discomfort in the spine between your shoulder blades, ranging from the neck to the bottom of the ribcage. This discomfort is experienced by approximately 16% of the population at least once in their entire lives. The upper area of our spine is designed to protect the vital organs within our chest whilst also stabilising the mid-section of our body, like an anchor does to a boat. Due to its protective nature, when upper back pain does occur, it is generally due to poor posture, muscle overuse/disuse, nerve irritation or joint dysfunction.

Common symptoms of upper back pain

If you are experiencing upper back pain or stiffness, you may also notice the following:

  • Restricted movement
  • Muscle tightness and knots in the upper back or shoulder region
  • Tingling, numbness, or weakness in the shoulders/arms
  • Tenderness in the upper back or shoulder region
  • Headaches

What can be done to avoid upper back pain

Upper back pain is a common complaint Chiropractors see in practice every day. Besides reaching out to a Chiropractor or health professional for assistance, there are several things you can do to help reduce and prevent upper back pain from occurring:

  • When working or sitting at a desk/table, ensure your spine is straight and resting against the chair, shoulders are relaxed, and elbows/wrists are comfortably resting on the desk. By adjusting your computer and/or laptop to be at your eye level, it will ensure this good posture and relaxed position can be maintained.
  • If you are constantly laying down or sitting for long periods of time, take regular breaks every 30 minutes to an 1 hour to allow time for the muscles to engage and stretch before returning to a stationary position again
  • Doing some mindfulness activities or meditation regularly will help to de-stress your body and relax muscles and joints, especially in the upper back, neck and shoulder region.
  • Avoid wearing heavy backpacks or carrying your purse/bag on one shoulder. This will cause an imbalance and build up of pressure in your upper back region and can lead to muscle spasms and joint dysfunction. Aim to spread the load across both shoulders and stack the items in your bag evenly in your bag as to not put too much pressure down one end.
  • Exercising regularly will help to strengthen and stabilise your body to avoid pain and stiffness. To focus on strengthening the upper back/posture muscles, perform lat pull downs, seated rows and core stability exercises. For tailored exercise advice, please speak to your Chiropractor or Allied Health Professional.

Top exercises for upper back pain

Here are three good Chiropractic exercises for upper back pain to assist with any stiffness or pain in the upper back region.

1. Cat Cow Exercise

The cat cow exercise is a great mobility and stretching exercise to not only help release muscle tension and improve joint mobility, but also help to improve long term posture and balance.

To perform this exercise:

  • Kneel on all fours with head and neck relaxed
  • Ensure both knees are positioned directly under the hips and both hands are directly under the shoulders
  • Take a deep breath in through your nose and arch your back up towards the ceiling like a ‘cat’
  • Hold this position for five seconds
  • Breathe out through your mouth and sink your tummy down towards the floor like a ‘cow’
  • Hold this position for five seconds
  • Repeat these actions slowly for 6 – 8 repetitions
  • Complete this exercise 1 – 2 times per day

cat cow exercise infographic

2. Threading the needle exercise

This exercise is a great gentle mobility exercise. It is a calming stretch that opens up the shoulders and stretches the spine to improve function and posture.

To perform this exercise:

  • Kneel on all fours with head and neck relaxed
  • Ensure both knees are positioned directly under the hips and both hands are directly under the shoulders
  • Take a deep breath in through your nose and turn your body to reach one arm up towards the ceiling
  • Hold this position for five seconds
  • Breathe out your mouth and thread that same arm under your body towards the opposite side. Bending the elbow of the stable arm with allow for more movement
  • Hold this position for five seconds
  • Repeat these actions slowly for 6 – 8 repetitions on each side
  • Complete this exercise 1 – 2 times per day

Threading the needle exercise infographic

3. Wall slides

One of the main causes of upper back pain is poor posture. The wall slide exercise is a great posture focus exercise that works on both stretching and strengthening the postural muscles that can lead to upper back pain and discomfort.

To perform this exercise:

  • Sit on the floor with your back resting up against the wall. Start with both arms bent beside your body with your hands facing up the wall.
  • Take a deep breath in through your nose and reach both arms up the wall towards the ceiling. Focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together throughout the movement.
  • Hold this position for 10 seconds
  • Breathe out through your mouth and bring your arms down the wall back to their starting position, next to your body. Releasing the tension in the shoulder blades throughout the movement
  • Relax in this position for 10 seconds
  • Repeat these actions slowly 6-8 times each
  • Complete this exercise 1-2 times per day

wall slides infographic

Please seek out the tailored advice of a health professional if any of these exercises cause or aggravate your upper back pain.

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