13 Upper Back Stretches for Pain Relief

Answer this: Do you suffer from mid to upper back pain?

upper back pain

This blog post is dedicated to showing you 13 of the most effective upper back stretches to help provide pain relief in this area.

Start here

To get the most out of all of the upper back stretches, it is strongly recommended that you release the tight muscles in the region first.

(Muscles targeted: Trapezius, Rhomboid, Erector Spinae)

a) Release to Upper Back muscles

release to tight upper back muscle


  • Lie down on the floor.
  • Position the area between the spine and shoulder blade on top of a massage ball.
  • Apply as much of your body weight on top of the massage ball as comfortably tolerated.
  • Make sure to cover the entire area where you experience your upper back pain.
  • Do not place any bony areas directly on top of the massage ball.
  • Keep your body as relaxed as possible throughout the release.
  • Continue for 2-5 minutes.

Upper Back Stretches for pain Relief


  • Do not hold your breath when stretching. (Relax!)
  • Make sure that you can FEEL the stretch in the area where you experience your pain.
  • There are multiple variations of stretches listed. Try them all first to see which one suits you the best.

A. Stretches to Upper Back Muscles

Here are 6 simple (but effective) ways on how to stretch your upper back muscles for pain relief.

1. Sitting Forward Flexion

Sitting upper back stretches


  • Sit up right on the edge of a chair.
  • Lower your chin towards the upper chest.
  • Place your fingers behind the back of your head.
  • Gently pull your head downwards.
  • Whilst keeping the chin tucked, slowly curve the upper back downwards.
  • Reach your elbows forwards/outwards.
  • Take a deep breath in to increase the stretch sensation.
  • Aim to feel a stretch in your upper back area.
  • Hold for 30 seconds.

2. Left or Right Upper Back Stretch

upper back stretches to left or right side


(This stretch is described to stretch the right upper back region.)

  • Sit down on a chair.
  • Fold your torso forwards.
  • Look towards your left knee.
  • Place your left hand behind the back of your head and pull your head towards the left arm pit.
  • Whilst maintaining the downward pressure on your head, start to curve your upper back towards the left knee. (Don’t move from your lower back!)
  • Reach your right arm out in front of you. (Imagine your are trying to wrap your arm around a very wide tree.)
  • Aim to feel a stretch on the right side of the upper back.
  • Take deep breaths in this position to increase the stretch.
  • Hold this position for 30 seconds.
  • Repeat on the other side.

3. Cat Stretch

cat stretch for upper back pain


  • Assume the 4 point kneeling position.
  • Keep your arms straight and reaching towards the floor throughout this stretch.
  • Round your upper back as much as possible.
  • Tuck your chin in and look towards your belly button.
  • Aim to feel a stretch at the upper back.
  • Take deep breaths in to increase the stretch.
  • Hold for 30 seconds.
  • Progression: Try to round your upper back one vertebra at a time(Segmental control)

4. Stretch with Exercise Ball

stretch between shoulder blades


(You will need a large exercise ball for this stretch.)

  • Wrap both of your arms around the exercise ball as far as you can.
  • Round your upper back as much as possible.
  • Tuck your chin in and look downwards.
  • Take a deep breath in.
  • Aim to feel a stretch in the region between your shoulder blades.
  • Hold this position for 30 seconds.

5. Standing Forward Fold

standing upper back stretches for pain


  • Start in a standing position.
  • Bend forwards and lock your finger tips underneath your toes.
  • Tuck your chin in.
  • Nod your chin down towards your upper chest.
  • Whilst keeping your fingers locked under your toes, relax your arms and lean slightly backwards.
  • Take a deep breath in to increase the stretch in the upper back..
  • Hold this position for 10-30 seconds.
  • (Note: Take care with this stretch if you have lower back issues.)

6. Hanging off a bar

hang stretch for upper back


  • Hold onto a horizontal bar.
  • Drop down into a squat position and allow your body weight to completely hang off your arms.
  • Make sure that your feet are gently resting on the floor for support.
  • Lean slightly backwards.
  • Round your upper torso forwards.
  • Tuck your chin in.
  • Look downwards.
  • Aim to feel a stretch in the upper back region.
  • Take a deep breath in between the shoulder blades to increase the stretch.
  • Hold this position for 30 seconds.

B. Stretches to the Joints

Now that all of the muscles have been stretched, the aim of the following 3 exercises is to get the joints in the upper back moving.

7. Thoracic Rotation

stretch for tight upper back muscles


  • Sit down on a chair.
  • Place your hand on the outer side of the opposite knee.
  • Using the other arm, hook your elbow onto the back of the chair.
  • Using your arms as leverage, start to rotate your spine. (as if to look behind you)
  • Aim to minimize the movement in the lower back. The majority of the movement should ideally occur in the upper back.
  • Perform 30 repetitions.
  • Repeat on the other side.
  • (Note: It is common to have some clicks in the spine as you perform this stretch!)

8. Translation

stretch for painful upper back

(This stretch is described to stretch the right Upper back area.)


  • Sit on the floor with your legs towards your left.
  • Place the right hand on the floor to your right side.
  • Keep the right arm completely straight throughout this stretch.
  • Relax your right shoulder as you lean your weight onto the right arm.
  • Glide/Shift your torso towards the right.
  • Aim to feel a stretch in the right upper back region.
  • You can increase the stretch by taking a deep breath in.
  • Hold this position for 30 seconds.
  • Repeat on the other side.

9. Thoracic Extension

(I recommended working on EXTENSION after performing all of the previously mentioned stretches. Why? Moving the spine into extension has the potential to jam the joints together. Create space in the joint first!)

stretches for stiff torso


  • Lie down on the floor.
  • Place a foam roller (perpendicular to the spine) directly under the upper back region.
  • Support the back of your head with your fingers.
  • Slowly arch your upper back backwards.
  • Make sure to keep your lower ribs down to prevent your lower back from over arching.
  • Perform 30 repetitions.
  • (Note: You can move the foam roller slightly up or down depending on what feels best for you.)

C. Strengthening Exercises

Once your muscles and joints have been stretched, check out the following 3 strengthening exercises on how to work out your upper back muscles.

10. Shoulder Rolls

scapula retraction exercise


  • Shrug your shoulders upwards without tensing your neck.
  • Whilst maintaining the shrugged position, pull your shoulder blades back together.
  • Aim to feel a firm contraction in between the shoulder blades.
  • Hold for 10 seconds.
  • Perform 10 repetitions.

11. Shoulder Retractions with Arm Overhead

exercise for pain between shoulder blades


  • Hold onto a resistance band between your hands.
  • Raise your arms over your head.
  • Aim to feel a contraction in your upper back region.
  • Hold for 5 seconds.
  • Perform 30 repetitions.

12. Thoracic Extension

thoracic extension strengthening exercise


  • Kneel down on the floor.
  • Support your torso on top of a small stool.
  • Place your hands behind your head.
  • Lift your upper chest off the ball.
  • Aim to feel the muscles between your shoulder blades contract.
  • Make sure to keep your neck completely relaxed.
  • Hold for 5 seconds.
  • Perform 10 repetitions.

D. Relax the Upper Back

This exercise will use gravity to help place your upper back in a more neutral position.

13. Posture Reset

stretch exercises for upper back pain


  • Lie down on the floor.
  • Place your hip and knees at 90 degrees by supporting the back of the shin bone on a stool.
  • Stretch out your arms above your head.
  • Aim to keep the back of your arms flat on the ground.
  • (Use pillows underneath the arms if they do not lie flat on the ground.)
  • Relax in this position for 15 minutes.

Common Questions

a) What causes tightness in the upper back?

In my opinion – The main cause of tightness and/or pain in the upper back is poor posture.

(.. especially if you are in this bad posture for long periods of time.)

b) When should I worry about upper back pain?

There are more serious causes of pain that you should be aware of such as:

  • Referred pain from the Cervical spine
  • Rib fractures
  • Problems involving the Lung/Heart
  • Acid Reflux
  • Nerve-related issues
  • Disc bulges in Thoracic spine

If you suspect that you may have any of the above, I would suggest getting a review from a health professional who will be able to perform the necessary tests.

c) How long can upper back pain last?

There should be a noticeable improvement even after a few days of performing the recommended upper back stretches.

If your upper back pain persists after 2-4 weeks of consistently performing the stretches, it is likely that you will also need to focus on improving your posture. (See next section: Address Your Posture.)

Address your posture

Certain postures may place more stress/strain/pressure in the muscles and joints of the upper back region.

a) Forward Head Posture

forward head posture

The more the head shifts forwards, the more strain to the upper back muscles/joints as they attempt to support the weight of the head against gravity.

For more information: Exercises for Forward Head Posture.

b) Rounded Shoulders

rounded shoulders

If your shoulders slouch forwards, this can place stress on the muscles in between the shoulder blades.

For more information: Exercises for Rounded Shoulders.

c) Thoracic Kyphosis

thoracic kyphosis

A hunched upper back (also known as Thoracic Kyphosis) places the upper back muscles in an elongated position. This may affect the optimal function of these muscles.

For more information: Exercises for Thoracic Kyphosis.

d) Flat Thoracic Spine

Ideally – the upper back should have a slight curve.

If this area is too flat, the joints will tend to be jammed together which can lead to pain.

For more information: Exercises for a Flat Thoracic Spine.


Pain in the upper back region is a very common issue experienced by many people.

In my opinion – the main cause of pain in this region for most people that I see is due to bad posture.

The suggested upper back stretches in this blog post can definitely help reduce the pain and stiffness in this area.

In the initial stages: I strongly recommend performing all of the stretches shown in this blog post.

Once you have a good idea of how to perform the stretches properly, choose the stretches that give you the most relief to your upper back pain.

What to do next

1. Any questions?… (Leave me a comment down below.)

2. Come join me:

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3. Start doing the exercises!

Disclaimer: The content presented on this blog post is not medical advice and should not be treated as such. It is not intended to be used as a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Use of the content provided on this blog post is at your sole risk. For more informationMedical disclaimer.

6 thoughts on “13 Upper Back Stretches for Pain Relief”

  1. Hi Mark,
    My pain does seem to feel better if I shrug and/or look up. Is there an ideal sleeping position? Also, if its a nerve issue will I need professional help, or is it treatable at home? Thanks so much!

    • Hey Emily,

      Nerve issues are best to be looked at by a health professional as the last thing you’d want is to make the situation worse.

      However, generally speaking, you do not really want to apply an excessive amount of stretch on the nerve. (ie. looking down, hunching, side bending spine towards opposite side of pain etc). Shrugging and looking up will actually take the tension off the nerve which may explain why you feel a bit better performing this said motion.

      What does your posture look like? Do you want me to look at some photos of your posture?

      In terms of the ideal sleeping position, it is really whatever position that allows you to get a good night rest. However – have you tried sleeping on your back with your arms resting over your head in the “Y” position. This might take some tension off the nerve, but it can also aggravate the shoulder if you have an issue there already.


  2. Hi Mark,
    I think I may have a trapezius strain. When sitting or laying down in any position my right upper back burns no matter how much I ujust myself. This has been going on for months. When trying exercise one, I get an intense painful pulling and after a while it begins to tingle. I spend a lot of time at a desk job ad looking down at my phone. How should I attemt to fix this pain? Will painful stretching make it worse?


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