2 Upper Back Exercises to Prevent Neck Pain

2 Upper Back Exercises to Prevent Neck Pain

Sam Watkinsby Dr. Sam Watkins, DPT

Neck pain is, unfortunately, something most of us will experience at some point. Spine-related pain, in general, is a very complex topic, and many times it’s unclear what’s the exact cause of pain. But sometimes, a lack of movement (hypomobility) or even too much movement (hypermobility) at joints in the spine can be the culprit.

When a patient comes into the clinic with neck pain and presents with hypomobility or hypermobility of the neck (cervical spine), it’s not unusual to find that the mid and upper back (thoracic spine) is often hypomobile as well.

The thoracic spine often gets stiff and tight with inactivity, particularly with lots of sitting, and we tend to overcompensate by recruiting more from other parts of the body.

What does that mean for your neck pain? The neck can often be a victim of a stiff thoracic spine, either becoming hypermobile to make up for the loss of motion, or becoming extra stiff as motion is recruited from the low back or hips. Either way, too much or too little motion in the neck can cause pain. Performing the exercises below can unlock your thoracic spine and improve your neck movement!

Check out this video to see the area to target on your spine and the proper form you’ll want to use.

Using a Foam Roller to Mobilize the Thoracic Spine

foam roller area to target
Target this area of the spine with this foam roller technique.

Rolling the upper back out with a foam roller or similar device is something that patients with mid-back pain often do, but it can significantly improve neck mobility and pain as well. Using a foam roller in this region is different than using one on muscles in the limbs. Rolling on muscles can help them to relax, but when using a foam roller for the upper back you should think about using it as a fulcrum to arch over. By doing this, you’re mobilizing the joints in the upper spine.

When activating your thoracic spine, focus on the region between the base of your neck and the bottom of the shoulder blades. As demonstrated in the video, the key is to prevent your ribcage from flaring out and to keep your neck in line with your upper back.

neck foam roller

Start at the top of the region of the spine mentioned above and pulse 10-15 times before moving 1-2 inches down the spine. Repeat this until you reach the bottom of the shoulder blades. Then move on to the exercise below.

Active Thoracic Rotations to help neck pain

Foam rolling has been shown to improve range of motion, but the effects only last for a few minutes. In order to get the most out of the foam rolling you just performed, it needs to be followed up with an active exercise to reinforce the new range of motion you have opened up and make it something that will help you.

Thoracic rotations are a great way to do this.

Starting position for active thoracic rotation
Starting position for active thoracic rotation

Start on your hands and knees with your hands slightly in front of your shoulders. Place one hand on the back of your neck and rotate through your back, leading with your elbow by trying to get it as close to vertical as possible.

Move in an out of this position, and make sure that as you are performing the exercise you’re also rotating your head in the direction you are rotating by keeping your eyes on your elbow. Perform 2 sets of 15 rotations 1-2 times daily, ideally after foam rolling or another more passive mobility drill, to loosen up a stiff upper back and neck.

End position for thoracic rotation
End position for thoracic rotation

By performing a more passive exercise (foam rolling) followed by an active exercise, you’ll get the most out of your mobility work. While there is a great deal of research demonstrating how a lack of mobility in the thoracic spine can contribute to tightness in the neck and even neck pain, every individual has different needs so these exercises may not be exactly what you need to unlock your upper back.

Not seeing improvement?

If you’re having persistent neck or upper back pain, consult with a physical therapist. The physical therapists at MoveMend will provide you with an individualized treatment plan designed to meet your specific needs to manage your symptoms. You can book an appointment with me here. 

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