Unfortunately, upper back pain as all too common. Between using your computer, phone and tablet you're probably hunched over staring at a screen for several hours per day, and that bad posture can lead to upper back pain.
If you're suffering from discomfort in your upper back, read on to learn some tips and exercises to alleviate your pain.
If your upper back pain feels severe or hinders your day-to-day activities, it's best to consult with a medical professional before you try to heal on your own. Follow your doctor's recommendations first.
1. Apply Heat or Ice
There are several things you can do right away to help alleviate pain and prevent further discomfort or injury. For one, stop any physical activity that you think may be the cause of your sensitive upper back. For instance, if your pain flares up every time you lift weights, it's best to take a few days off from the gym. Or if you notice that working in a specific chair for several hours is problematic, try to find an alternative.
Most people with moderate pain in their back can manage symptoms with a few simple medical measures, including heat or ice, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Not sure which is best for you? Use ice for acute pain, otherwise, stick to heat, recommends Kaliq Chang, MD, neck and spine interventional pain specialist with Atlantic Spine Center.
Taking anti-inflammatory medication (or NSAIDs), like ibuprofen or naproxen, is another way you can help minimize pain right away, per the Cleveland Clinic. However, don't take any kind of over-the-counter medicine for the first time without a doctor's guidance.
2. Rest Your Body
Although it seems like a no-brainer, taking a break from your usual physical activity is probably going to offer a lot of relief, according to University of Michigan Health. However, you don't want to rest for too long, because promoting blood flow to the area can help alleviate your symptoms, too.
Take a few days of rest until you start to feel your pain fade to a manageable level. From there, ease into some light physical activity, avoiding any sports or movements that may make your pain worse. As you dip your toes back into movement, start with a few pain-relieving exercises (more on that below).
3. Tweak Your Posture
Posture is a big reason why so many people experience back pain. And considering most of us spend our days seated at a desk, it's no surprise. But paying close attention to proper posture is one way you can help improve your back aches and pains, according to Dr. Chang.
"I would focus on correct posture while sitting, standing or walking, especially making sure the neck is in a neutral position," he says. "Proper posture feels like the pelvis is pushed unnaturally backward and the chest forward."
What exactly does proper posture look like? Sit straight and tall with your shoulders back and down away from your ears, stomach pulled in to keep your core active. Uncross your legs and sit with both feet flat on the ground, knees bent to about a 90-degree angle. And if you're typing, try to keep your forearms parallel to the ground.
4. Strengthen Your Core
One thing you need to know about your back? It has a tendency to compensate for weaknesses in other parts of your body, particularly your core, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.
Your core is more than just the six-pack muscles on the front of your stomach. It's actually made up of several deep layers of muscle that help support your spine and pelvis. So, when these muscles are weak, the safety of your spine can be compromised.
Assuming you can move without too much pain, practicing some easy core stabilizing exercises can help alleviate your back pain. Glute bridges, bird dogs and planks (see below) are just a few beginner core exercises you can try.
- Lie on your back with your arms resting by your sides, knees bent and feet flat on the ground hip-width apart.
- Relax your arms alongside your body. Think of your shoulders being "glued" to the floor to help keep your spine neutral.
- Squeeze your glutes and core, and press your heels into the ground to drive your hips up toward the ceiling until you form a diagonal line from knees to hips to chest. Resist the urge to arch your lower back as you raise your hips. Focus on keeping your spine in a neutral position throughout.
- Hold this position for a few seconds with your glutes engaged.
- Slowly lower your hips back down to the ground and reset in the starting position for a second before lifting back up.
- Get on your hands and knees with your hands directly in line with your shoulder and knees in line with your hips.
- Reach your left arm straight out in front of you until your upper arm is in line with your ear.
- Simultaneously reach your right leg straight behind you, fully extending your knee.
- Pause here for a moment.
- Reverse the motion and return to the starting position.
- Switch sides, reaching your right arm forward and raising your left leg back.
- Pause and then go back to the starting position.
If this move feels too challenging, you can modify by keeping both knees on the ground and alternating only your arms.
- Lie face down on your belly with your palms on the floor underneath your shoulders and your feet flexed with the bottoms of your toes on the floor.
- Take a deep breath and press through your palms to lift yourself up into the top of a push-up position. Your body should make a straight line from your heels through your hips to the top of your head.
- Draw your navel toward your spine and squeeze your glutes.
- Look at the floor directly below your head to keep your neck in a neutral position, and breathe normally.
- Hold for at least 10 seconds and lower yourself back to the floor.
5. Stretch and Strengthen Your Back
Though any good workout routine should hit every major muscle group at some point in the week, targeting the muscles of your upper back has some very specific benefits. First off, you'll improve your posture.
Stronger rhomboids and trapezius muscles (the ones that pull your shoulder blades back) are better able to hold your shoulders back and your spine upright, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
Strengthening the upper back muscles can also help you rehab from a shoulder injury. The rhomboids and trapezius muscles help stabilize your shoulder joint, aiding recovery and helping to prevent future injuries, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.
If you have nagging pain that's not caused by soreness or an acute injury, gentle upper back exercises can help manage your pain. In fact, it's better to stay active than rest in bed. Even simple body-weight moves and upper back stretches can be better for your pain than doing nothing, according to Joseph Lee, MD, interventional physiatrist at Mount Sinai Hospital's Spine Center.
"Stopping physical activity completely is usually not necessary, but activities that exacerbate the pain should be avoided until the pain subsides," he says. "Gentle stretching exercises can also help to loosen the muscle tightness and spasms."
6 Upper Back Exercises to Try
1. Scapular Push-Up
- Start in a high plank with your hands and feet shoulder-width apart and your wrists stacked underneath shoulders, core tight.
- Keeping your arms straight, drop your ribs and chest toward the ground, pinching your shoulder blades together at the top. Pause here for a moment.
- Reverse the motion and draw your spine toward the ceiling while pulling your shoulder blades down and back.
This move can help strengthen your shoulders and shoulder blades, which often fatigue and slouch after many hours of sitting. As you do this exercise, keep your shoulders down and back away from your ears.
2. Cat Pose
- Kneel on your hands and knees.
- Exhale and round your back, pulling your belly toward your spine, tucking your chin to your chest.
- Starting at the tailbone, release one segment of back spine at a time, returning to a neutral spine.
This exercise can help you practice activating your core by pulling your belly to your spine (another crucial part of proper posture). Plus, this one acts as a gentle stretch on your spine.
3. Shoulder Shrug Circle
- Stand tall and bring your arms out straight in front of you at shoulder height.
- Maintain this arm position through the whole exercise.
- Shrug your shoulders up to your ears.
- Roll your shoulders back away from your ears and down, returning to the starting position.
- Roll several times and then reverse the direction.
As you do this exercise, focus on moving your shoulders through their full range of motion. By pushing your shoulders back and down, you practice proper posture. If needed, you can do this exercise seated to give your back a little extra support.
4. Child's Pose with Alternating Reach
- Kneel on the floor with your hips over your knees.
- Separate your knees about hip-width apart and bring your big toes to touch.
- Lower your body to rest your glutes on your heels.
- Exhale and bring your chest down toward your mat, elongating your neck and spine and stretching your tailbone down toward the floor.
- Stretch your arms out in front of you and rest your forehead on the mat, pausing here for a few breaths.
- Keeping your lower body stable, reach your arms to your right until you feel a deep stretch in your left side.
- Pause for a few breaths and repeat the same motion to the left.
Child's pose helps stretch your lats (the muscles on your back under your armpits), which can often become tight and achy after upper body exercises.
5. Chin Tuck
- Stand tall with your feet at hip-width distance, chin parallel to the ground.
- Reach up to your chin with your right index finger.
- Gently push your chin down to create a tuck into your neck.
- Pause here for a moment.
- Release the tuck and repeat.
This exercise may feel a little bizarre, but it helps you practice putting your neck in alignment with your spine. Hold the tuck for several seconds until you feel a stretch along the back of your neck and into your upper back.
6. Wall Pec Stretch
- Stand tall in front of a wall with your right arm raised to a 90 degree angle, palm and elbow pressed against the wall. Let your left arm rest to the side.
- Maintaining contact with the wall, gently rotate your body away from your right arm, opening your chest to the left.
- Continue rotating until you feel a deep stretch across the right side of your chest and back.
- Pause here for a few moments and switch sides.
Often, tight chest muscles can pull your shoulders forward and down, causing your upper back to hunch forward. By loosening up your pecs, it becomes easier to sit with proper posture.
- University of Michigan Health: "Upper and Middle Back Pain"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Upper Back Pain"
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: "Preventing Back Pain at Work and at Home"
- American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons: "Rotator Cuff and Shoulder Conditioning Program"
- American Council on Exercise: "Muscles That Move the Scapulae"
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