Upper back pain and tension are common complaints, particularly when people are stressed or spend a lot of time hunched over. Exercises that stretch the neck, shoulders, and upper back can help relieve pain and loosen tight muscles.

This article lists several stretches that can ease upper back pain, along with tips for warming up to prevent injury. It also gives advice about when to see a doctor.

Before stretching or exercising, warm up to help prevent injury and make any workout more effective. A warm-up usually consists of:

  • aerobic activity
  • dynamic stretches
  • activity-specific exercises
  • short-duration static stretching

Below, learn the steps for a 6-minute warm-up routine. A person can extend it if they are interested in a longer warm-up.

Step 1: March on the spot (3 minutes)

Begin by marching in place while pumping the arms up and down in rhythm with the footsteps. Keep the elbows bent and the fists loose.

Step 2: Heel digs (60 digs in 60 seconds)

To perform a heel dig:

  • Stand up straight, with the left leg slightly bent.
  • Place the right foot in front of the body with the heel on the ground and the toes pointing up.
  • At the same time, extend both arms out in front of the body.
  • Return to the starting position.
  • Repeat on the other side.

Step 3: Knee lifts (30 lifts in 30 seconds)

To perform a knee lift:

  • Stand with the back straight and the abs tight.
  • Bend the left leg slightly, and bring the right knee up to touch the left hand.
  • Return to the starting position.
  • Repeat on the other side.

Step 4: Shoulder rolls (2 sets of 10 repetitions)

To perform shoulder rolls:

  • March on the spot with the arms straight down by the sides of the body.
  • Roll the shoulders forward five times.
  • Roll the shoulders backward five times.

Step 5: Knee bends (10 repetitions)

To perform knee bends:

  • Stand with the feet shoulder-width apart and the arms stretched out in front of the body.
  • Slowly bend at the knees, lowering the body to a comfortable position.
  • Slowly rise to the starting position.
  • Repeat this 10 times.

Many exercises can help ease back, neck, and shoulder pain. Varying the activities can help maintain the range of motion and keep the routine from feeling stale. Exercises that may help include:

Below are some stretches that may help relieve and prevent upper back pain.

These stretch the joints and muscles through their full range of motion. Below are some dynamic stretches that may help ease and prevent upper back pain.

Trunk rotation

To perform the trunk rotation:

  1. Lie on the back with the knees bent and the feet flat.
  2. Keeping the knees bent, gently rotate them to the right side.
  3. Hold this position for a few seconds.
  4. Return the knees to the center.
  5. Repeat the stretch several times on both sides.

Overhead arm reach

To perform the overhead arm reach:

  1. Begin seated or standing.
  2. Stretch the arms above the head.
  3. Lean to the right, keeping both arms stretched upward. To deepen the stretch, use the right hand to gently pull the left arm to the right.
  4. Return to the starting position.
  5. Repeat the stretch several times on both sides.

Cat-Cow Pose

To perform this yoga pose:

  1. Begin on all fours. The hands should be beneath the shoulders and the knees directly beneath the hips. This is the Table Pose.
  2. Slowly arch the back upward, pushing down through the shoulders and dropping the head to the chest. This is the Cat Pose.
  3. Hold it for a few seconds, then release.
  4. Return to the starting position, but continue to drop the lower back toward the floor. Gently move the head back so that the chin and nose point upward. This is the Cow Pose.
  5. Hold it for a few seconds, then release.
  6. Return to the Table Pose and repeat the whole sequence several times.

Knee to chest

To perform this stretch:

  1. Begin by lying on the back.
  2. Gently lift the legs and bend the knees, bringing them to the chest.
  3. Hug the knees to the chest for a breath, then relax, allowing the feet to return to the floor.
  4. Repeat several times, as necessary.

A person can easily perform these while at their desk or in their office. Some examples are below.

Wall stretch

To perform the wall stretch:

  1. Stand with the right side of the body facing a wall.
  2. Bend the right arm at the elbow, placing the forearm against the wall. The upper arm should be completely straight so that the elbow forms a 90-degree angle.
  3. Gently take a step forward with the right foot and twist to the left, allowing the right shoulder and upper back to stretch.
  4. Hold the stretch for a few seconds, then return to the starting position.
  5. Repeat the stretch several times on both sides.

Neck flexion

To perform the neck flexion:

  1. Sit or stand up straight.
  2. Gently drop the chin to the chest, making sure to stop if there is any pain or discomfort.
  3. Roll the head so that the right ear is close to the right shoulder. Hold this position for a few seconds.
  4. Keeping the chin down, slowly rotate the head back, continuing until the left ear is near the left shoulder. Hold this position for a few seconds.
  5. Continue this gentle rotation of the head from shoulder to shoulder several times. Pause and deepen the stretch whenever there is muscle tension.

Shoulder roll

To perform the shoulder roll:

  1. Sit or stand up straight, with the arms relaxed by the sides.
  2. Gently roll the shoulders forward, lifting them up and down in a circular motion. Continue for around 30 seconds.
  3. Repeat the shoulder roll in the opposite direction.

Static stretches are controlled, continuous movements that a person holds once they reach the limit of their range of motion. People generally use static stretches after exercising, but these stretches can also play a role in a warm-up routine. Some examples are below.

Child’s Pose

To perform this yoga pose:

  1. Begin in the Table Pose, then bring the big toes together.
  2. Slowly lower the hips toward the floor, resting the buttocks on top of the feet. While doing this, bring the chest down to the thighs, and bring the forehead down to the floor.
  3. Stretch the arms out in front, with the palms touching the floor.
  4. Remain in this position for several breaths or as long as feels comfortable.
  5. Pushing through the arms, slowly return to the starting position.

Instead of extending the arms forward, try bringing the arms backward to rest beside the thighs, with the palms facing up.

Another variation is to stretch the right arm forward while threading the left arm under the right arm and out to the side, rotating the head to face it. A person then repeats this on the opposite side. This creates a gentle rotation and twisting motion in the back and shoulders.

Thoracic extension

A person needs a yoga block or foam roller for this exercise.

To perform the thoracic extension:

  1. Sit on the floor.
  2. Place the block or roller on the floor behind the body, and slowly lie back so that it supports the upper back area. The buttocks should be on the floor and the hands should be behind the head, supporting the head and neck.
  3. For a deeper stretch, extend the arms above the head while bending the body backward.
  4. Take a few deep breaths, and let the back and shoulder muscles relax.
  5. Repeat the exercise several times.

Upper back pain may resolve on its own or with rest and gentle stretching.

However, see a doctor if the pain is severe or persistent. The doctor will work to determine the cause and recommend appropriate treatment options.

Upper back pain is common and not usually a cause for concern. In many cases, gentle stretching can help ease it.

Before stretching, it is important to warm up. This helps prevent injury to the muscles and connective tissues. A warm-up routine should last around 6 minutes and incorporate various exercises, including marching on the spot, knee lifts, and shoulder rolls.

See a doctor about severe or persistent back pain that does not improve with regular stretching. Also, contact a healthcare professional if the pain occurs with other concerning symptoms.