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Finding Relief for Tight Muscles in Your Upper Back

If you experience tightness or pain in your mid-to-upper back area, you're not alone. This region of the spine, known as the thoracic spine, or more commonly the upper back, often develops muscle tightness from poor posture, overuse, or injury. The good news is that performing some simple stretches and exercises for the thoracic spine can help provide relief.


Man Reaching to his neck with apparent pain

In this post, I'll share three of my favorite stretches that target tight muscles in the upper back:

  1. Thoracic and shoulder blade active stretching:  Using suspension bands to perform standing rows can maximize scapular protraction and retraction.  Restoring full range of motion to the back muscles and maximum lengthening of the chest muscles reduces spinal stress and chronic back pain.

  2. Thoracic Side Bend: Stand with your feet wide apart, knees slightly bent. Extend your right arm straight up overhead. Place your left hand on your hip. Slowly bend your torso to the left, keeping your right arm extended overhead. Hold for 30 seconds. Repeat on the other side. This stretch elongates the sides of the thoracic spine.

  3. Chest Opener with Exercise Ball: Sit on an exercise ball with your feet hip-width apart. Hold a large ball, pillow or cushion behind your upper back. Open your arms wide, squeezing the ball between your shoulder blades. Draw your shoulders back and press your chest forward. Hold for 30 seconds. Repeat 2-3 times. This opens the front of the thoracic spine.


Be sure to move slowly and breathe deeply during these stretches. Stop immediately if you feel any pinching or sharp pain. Perform these stretches daily, along with some upper back strengthening exercises, to keep your thoracic spine mobile and healthy.


A stretch professional or flexibility specialist could provide additional guidance and hands-on assistance to help address tightness in the thoracic spine area. Here are some ways a stretch professional could help:

  1. Assessment - A qualified stretch therapist can do a more thorough assessment of your upper back mobility limitations. They can pinpoint exactly which muscles are tight and restricting movement.

  2. Assisted Stretching - They can manually guide you into deeper stretches safely by using expert techniques to facilitate range of motion. This allows you to target tight areas more precisely.

  3. Personalized Programming - Based on their assessment, they can create a customized stretching program to meet your specific needs. This may include stretches not mentioned in basic online recommendations.

  4. Hands-On Release Work - Active Release Technique, done by a certified professional, can help relax tight musculature and restore movement. This can prepare the area better for effective stretching.

  5. Postural Correction - They can identify poor movement patterns and postural habits that contribute to your upper back tightness. They can then coach you through proper spinal alignment and movement mechanics.

While the stretches mentioned in this article can certainly provide some relief, working one-on-one with a knowledgeable stretch therapist can often provide more robust, longer-lasting results. Performance Care Stretch Clinic can address muscle imbalance issues and restrictions in a precise, safe manner. 

As with any exercise routine, consistent practice is needed for optimal gains in range of motion and lasting tension relief.

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