How to Stretch Your Upper Back to Help Relieve Back & Shoulder Pain

When you’re hunched at a computer desk during work hours, you’ve undoubtedly noticed at some point that your upper back gets tight.

Even if you exercise on a regular basis, it’s almost impossible to avoid the upper body tension that arises in the modern work environment.

If you have any type of back or shoulder pain, chances are it’s been caused by sitting in misalignment for long periods on a regular basis. Tight, knotted muscles reduce blood flow to your brain, in turn affecting your mood and brain power.

In this post, we’ll go into exactly what you can do to loosen your muscles and relieve pain.

You’ll learn simple myofascial release techniques and stretches that target your upper back so that you can counter the tension, protect your posture and feel better throughout the day.


Why You Need to Stretch Your Upper Back

Sitting long hours at a desk, especially when you’re slumped toward a computer screen or craning your neck down at a mobile device, the cervical vertebrae at the top of your spine becomes strained.

Your back muscles and the backs of your shoulders lengthen, causing them to weaken.

Over time, slouching your upper back and jutting your head forward affects your postural alignment, making the “hunchback” and the “forward head posture” more permanent.

Hours of sitting without stretching, exercising or massaging also hurts your spine. Spinal discs between vertebrae are designed to expand and contract like sponges to soak up fresh blood so they can remain nourished.

Without this movement, long-term sitting can cause your spinal discs to lose their elasticity and harden. This makes your spine more prone to pain and injury.

Other Benefits of Stretching Your Upper Back

Most people know that stretching promotes better flexibility, but stretching has a much longer list of benefits.

No matter who you are, stretching can benefit your health, and this has been proven in scientific studies.

Releases Muscle Tightness and Pain

When not released, muscle tension can lead to pain and stiffness, and increase your risk of injury when you go to exercise.

Stretching lengthens contracted muscles, releasing their constriction and the feelings of tightness that accompany it.

It also prevents muscle knots from developing or worsening. Stretching your back, in particular, allows blood to flow between the vertebrae of your spine helps reduce inflammation and heal aches and pains.

Improves Circulation

Every time you stretch a muscle, you stimulate blood flow in the area [1]. This increases the muscle’s oxygen supply and allows it to metabolize glucose for energy.

Stress Relief

When you experience stress, your muscles tense up as part of the “fight or flight” response. Stretching releases this tension by reversing the contraction of muscles and stimulating the release of endorphins.

Improves Your Posture

When muscles are tight and contracted for prolonged periods, such as when you slouch in a chair for hours a day, it can cause your body’s skeletal alignment to shift.

This is often a source of aches and pains, especially in joints like your shoulders.

Stretching keeps your muscles loose enough to maintain their proper alignment, so you can have better posture.

When your posture improves, not only do aches and pains abide, but also you feel more confident and can look your best.


A Look at Upper Back Tension: What’s Really Happening?

Let’s look at the muscles that make up your upper back and talk about how they become excessively tight. By understanding which muscles make up the upper back, you will also better understand how to stretch each one.

Upper Trapezius

Your trapezius muscle forms a diamond shape, starting at the base of your skull, extending out to each shoulder, and then coming together at your spine.

The upper traps include the area at your neck and shoulders, and they’re a common source of upper body pain. It’s in charge of stabilizing your shoulders, arms and neck, so when you sit in unnatural positions for long periods, this muscle absorbs a lot of the strain [2].

Luckily, they’re one of the easiest areas of the back to reach for self-massage therapy.

This is one of the most common upper back muscle to become tight. Stress causes us to raise our shoulders up which causes them to tighten up.  

Levator Scapulae

The levator scapulae are found on either side of your neck, toward the back of it.

Levator scapulae muscle back

It’s the muscle that contracts to lift your shoulder blade, and it can become tight and inflamed when you cradle a phone between your ear and shoulder, or if your shoulders creep up toward your ears while working at a computer.

Like the upper trapezius, this muscle is commonly tight in many people. By loosening this muscle, you can help relieve tension and promote better shoulder posture too.

Rhomboids

When your rhomboid muscles (minor and major) become excessively tight, they can become quite painful.

Rhomboid major muscle back
The Rhomboid Major
They’re connected to the spine and shoulder blade on either side. When they become tight, swollen and knotted, you feel pain in your shoulder blades.

The pain may connect with your breathing because it’s aggravated by the expansion of your rib cage. The rhomboids get tight from overuse of your shoulder and arm, or from holding your shoulders and arms in misaligned, unnatural positions for long periods.

One example is when you have your hands extended in front of you at a keyboard for hours on end [3].

Deltoids

Posterior (Rear) and Anterior (Front) Deltoids

Your deltoids are the muscles on top of your shoulder joints, as opposed to the rotator cuff muscles inside the joints.

It’s the muscle that forms the rounded contour of your shoulder, and it has a front, centre and back known as the anterior deltoid, lateral deltoid and posterior deltoid, respectively.

Deltoid pain is most common in people who engage in strenuous activity involving their shoulders, including swimming, football, basketball and baseball.

Your deltoid can also become strained from repetitive activity that puts pressure on your shoulders, such as typing with a keyboard that’s too high [4].

Lats

The latissimus dorsi, or “lats,” is a large, flat muscle group in your mid and lower back.

It connects your upper arm to your spine and to your hip, as it’s a muscle greatly involved in stabilization. Considering they help with the movement of your arms and spine, the health of your lats plays a key role in balance, range of motion and overall upper body strength.

Poor upper back posture can weaken your lats. They’re meant to help keep you upright, but if you sit for too long on a regular basis without breaking up tension and fixing your alignment, your upper back does the work to keep your head upright, and your lats simply relax.

Once you develop pain in your upper back, when your lats are weak, you can experience poor range of motion and be at a greater risk for injury [5].

Stretching your lats can also be a preventative measure to avoid developing an anterior pelvic tilt.

Infraspinatus and Teres Minor

Infraspinatus muscle animation
Infraspinatus
The infraspinatus and teres minor are smaller muscles located in the bottom two-thirds of your shoulder blades. They make up two of your four rotator cuff muscles, and they’re responsible for externally rotating your arm.

Teres minor muscle animation
Teres Minor
These also keep your shoulders in alignment and serve as the “break” when you’re pitching or throwing in sports. When they become tight and cause shoulder pain, it’s typically from overuse of your shoulders and staying in static positions in which your shoulders are misaligned.


How to Stretch the Major Muscles of the Upper Back

Now that you have a sense for the muscles in question, it’s time to tackle tightness and pain with one muscle at a time.

These exercises involve myofascial release and stretching, both of which effectively lengthen contracted muscles and loosen muscle knots.

Myofascial release exercises require tools like massage balls and foam rollers. They help heal muscle pain by releasing the fascia of your muscles so they can be lubricated and stay separate from other muscles and bones.

If you’re new to stretching and myofascial release, it helps to have a professional assist you. If you have a shoulder or neck injury, be sure to consult with your doctor before trying these stretches.

We’ll now provide release and stretch techniques for each of the upper back muscles we just discussed.

1. Upper Traps

To release your upper traps, hold a tennis ball, lacrosse ball or massage ball in one hand and use it to massage the upper trapezius on the opposite side.

You should find you’re able to apply more pressure this way than you could using your fingers. Another great way to remove knots in your traps is by using a body back buddy or any other trigger point massage stick.

Watch the video above for stretching and release techniques for the upper traps.

Ear to Shoulder Stretch

  • While sitting or standing upright, gently drop your head to one side so that your ear reaches toward your shoulder and you feel a stretch in the side of your neck.
  • Actively keep your shoulder down so that you lengthen the top of your shoulder instead of allowing your shoulder to creep up.
  • Repeat on the opposite side.

Ear to Shoulder Stretch Variation

  • Sit upright and turn your head to the right so that you’re looking sideways.
  • Using your left hand, gently pull your head directly to your left. Keep your shoulders down.
  • Repeat on the other side.

2. Levator Scapulae

You can use a massage ball to release your levator scapulae, either using your hand or standing against a wall with the ball between you and the wall.

Releasing the Levator Scapulae is similar to releasing the upper traps. Once again a trigger point massage stick will work well.

Overhead Levator Scapulae Stretch

  • In a seated or standing position, raise your right arm directly overhead.
  • Bend at the elbow so that your elbow points directly upward and your hand touches your right shoulder blade.
  • With your left hand, gently pull your head away from your right shoulder, slightly downward and to the left.
  • Keep both of your shoulders gently pressing downward the whole time. Hold for 30 seconds and then switch sides.

3. Rhomboids

You can start by using a foam roller on the floor to release your rhomboids. To better target them and apply more compression, use a massage ball against the wall. The video above shows you how to do this effectively.

You can also use a massage cane such as the Body Back Buddy or TheraCane to release trigger points in your rhomboids.

Rhomboid Side Stretch

  • Clasp your hands and raise your arms in front of you to shoulder-height.
  • Reach forward and toward one side to feel a stretch in your rhomboids on one side.
  • Hold for 30 seconds and then switch sides. edit

Rhomboid Forward Stretch

  • Clasp your hands and raise your arms in front of you to shoulder-height, like in the side stretch.
  • Instead of reaching toward one side, reach directly forward and intentionally round your upper back so that your shoulder blades protracted (move away from each other).
  • This way, you get a stretch between your shoulder blades.
  • You can do this stretch either sitting or standing.

The video above shows additional Rhomboid stretches such as the Cat-Cow, thread the needle and knot pose.


4. Deltoids

The best way to release tight deltoids is to use a massage ball against the wall on the fronts, sides and backs of your shoulders.

With the side of your body facing the wall, massage your lateral deltoids. Face the wall front-on to release your anterior deltoids, and face away from the wall to target your posterior deltoids. The video shows how you would release your posterior deltoids.

Side Arm Stretch

  • With your left arm straight, use your right hand to stretch your left arm across your body at shoulder height.
  • Make sure to keep your shoulder down as best you can.
  • Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the other side.

Anterior Deltoid Stretch

  • In a standing position, clasp your hands behind your back.
  • With your arms straight but not locked, lift your hands up as far as you can aiming to get your arms parallel with the floor.
  • Keep your shoulders down and hold for at least 30 seconds.

5. Lats

Since your lats are a large, flat muscle group, it’s fairly easy to release them with a foam roller.

  • Get down on a mat and support yourself on your side.
  • Place a foam roller under your side, below the armpit, and extend that arm overhead.
  • You can roll the foam roller using very small movements over this area, which tends to be filled with painful trigger points.
  • You can also keep the foam roller still and just roll your body slightly forward and back to help break up tension in the lats.

Side Stretch

This side stretch stretches your lats and your teres minor.

  • Stand up tall with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Lift your right arm overhead and bend it at the elbow.
  • Take your right elbow in your left hand and lean to the left as far as you comfortably can, bending at your torso.
  • Hold for 30 seconds and then stretch on the other side.

6. Infraspinatus and Teres Minor

You can release tightness in the infraspinatus and teres minor when you dig deeply into the backs of your shoulders, past the posterior deltoids.

The best way to do this is with a massage cane, a small massage ball or with a myofascial release tool. Using a massage ball or other tool, you can use the wall or the floor to help you apply counterpressure.

Cross-Body Pull

  • While sitting on a chair, raise your right arm to shoulder height.
  • Bend your right elbow and allow your right hand to rest against your neck.
  • Using your left hand, pull your right elbow across your chest to bring your scapula further from your spine. You should feel the stretch inside the back of your shoulder and shoulder blade.
  • Repeat on the opposite side.

The video above also shows additional stretches that you can try.


How to Prevent Upper Body Tightness and Pain in the Future

Stretching to relieve upper back pain is all well and good but another way to prevent it returning is to cut out the things that are causing it in the first place.

Here are some tips to keep upper body tightness and pain at bay:

  • The best way to prevent upper body tightness and pain is to avoid sitting in unnatural positions for extended periods. Take breaks to move around or stretch every 20 to 30 minutes when you’re sitting at a desk, so that your back muscles don’t become stiff and start to lose circulation.
  • Positions that stretch your head forward, hunch your back and round your shoulders forward are the ones you want to avoid, especially for longer periods. You could try a standing desk if you are prone to bad posture while sitting.
  • While sitting at a desk, lift your shoulders up and then roll them back and downward to fix your posture. Open and lift your chest and engage your abdominals to support your back. You can try sitting on a stability ball chair or a kneeling chair instead of your regular desk chair, since it helps you sit up straight using proper alignment and break the habit of slouching.
  • Practising proper posture is also an important part of avoiding back problems, notice your posture as you walk and stand as well.
  • When your arms need to be raised for long periods such as when you’re typing on a keyboard or driving a vehicle, make sure you relax your shoulders downwards. Don’t let them inch upward and create tension in your lats and shoulders.

When you practice these exercises and tips daily, you’ll start seeing improvements in the way your upper back feels within a week or two.

However, the mood and energy boost you get when you take a few minutes to stretch is instant.

Releasing and stretching tight muscles in your upper back can help you improve your posture–a vital aspect of maintaining a healthy back. Likewise, as you improve your posture, you should also experience less tightness.

If in the case none of these stretches work, then its best to seek professional advice from a health professional.

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