Overworked woman with back pain in office with bad posture

Exercises for Easing and Preventing Upper Back Pain

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

Muscles tension in the shoulders can also lead to neck stiffness and headaches, so it is important not to ignore upper back pain. Regular stretching can relieve current back pain and help prevent it from returning.

In this article, we describe several exercises and stretches for easing upper back pain. For some of these exercises, it may be a good idea to use a yoga or exercise mat, rather than performing them on hard flooring.

We also cover when to see a doctor for upper back pain.

Cat-Cow Pose

To perform the Cat-Cow Pose:

  1. Begin on all fours. The hands should be underneath 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 it.
  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 are pointing upward. This is the Cow Pose.
  5. Hold it for a few seconds, then release it.
  6. Return to the Table Pose and repeat the whole sequence several times.

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 and place 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.

Child’s Pose

To perform the Child’s Pose:

  1. Begin in the Table Pose but bring the big toes together.
  2. Slower lower the hips toward the floor, placing the buttocks on top of the feet. While doing this, bring the chest down to rest on the thighs and the forehead down to touch 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 a sitting position.

Instead of extending the arms forward, a person can also try placing the arms backward beside their thighs. The palms should be facing upward.

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 the stretch on the other side. This variation creates a gentle rotation and twist motion in the back and shoulders.

Trunk rotation

To perform the trunk rotation:

  1. Lie on the back with the knees bent and the feet flat.
  2. Gently rotate the knees to the right, keeping them bent.
  3. Hold this position for a few seconds.
  4. Return the knees to the center.
  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 down toward 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. Stand or sit up straight, keeping the arms down by the sides.
  2. Gently roll the shoulders forward, lifting them up and down in a continuous circular motion. Try to keep the arms relaxed.
  3. Do this for around 30 seconds, then repeat it in the opposite direction.

Overhead arm reach

To perform the overhead arm reach:

  1. Begin in a sitting or standing position.
  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.


To perform the knee-to-chest 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 a few times, as needed.

To perform the thoracic extension:

  1. Sit on the floor.
  2. Place the block or roller on the floor behind the body. Slowly lie back so that it supports the upper back area — the thoracic spine. The buttocks should be on the floor and the hands 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 this several times.

When to see a doctor of PT

Upper back pain often gets better on its own, particularly with rest and gentle stretching.

However, see a doctor if the pain is severe or does not go away. The PT can help determine whether there is a more serious cause for the pain and can recommend treatment options.


Upper back pain is common and usually not a cause for concern. Rest, over-the-counter medications, and gentle stretches and exercises can often help relieve the pain.

See a doctor of PT for an evaluation if the pain is severe, if it does not get better, or if there are any other symptoms or concerns.

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