Eight Simple Thoracic Spine Stretches to Kick That Upper Back Pain Once and for All

By Kaitlin Vogel for Parade.

Get ready to start threading that needle.

Let’s be honest—upper back pain is something most of us experience, especially for those of us who sit at a desk all day. Sitting for long periods of time can cause tightness and soreness in the shoulders, and research shows psychological stress is also a contributing factor to pain in the back.

Regardless of what’s causing your upper back pain, it’s important to manage it before it leads to injury. Thankfully, there are many different thoracic spine stretches designed to ease tension in that area.

What Causes Upper Back Pain?

The spine has several regions which are cervical, thoracic, lumbar and sacral. People usually differentiate these locations as neck pain, upper back pain, low back pain or buttock pain.

The cervical spine and lumbar spine have to deal with a lot of different forces which make these regions more vulnerable to spine pathologies, including disc degeneration, arthritis, stenosis and more, Vivek Babaria, DO RMSK, of DISC Sports & Spine Center, explains. The nerves communicating with the upper and lower limbs also have specific locations in the cervical and lumbar spine that correlate to nerve communication.

The upper back (thoracic) is unique in that it does not directly provide nerve innervation to the peripheral joints. The upper back usually causes pain when there is a direct impact, the patient is suffering from scoliosis, or there are fractures related to osteoporosis or cancer tumors, Dr. Babaria states. The patient can also have referred pain from the body, which osteopathic physicians call viscerosomatic pain—this is pain from an organ that transmits pain signals to the upper back and spine. For example, pancreatitis, diverticulitis, gastritis and acute kidney stones can all cause upper back pain.

Spine specialists rely on patient history, symptom reporting, a detailed physical exam and imaging to help clarify the diagnosis or pathology. Depending on your age, risk factors and other medical conditions, further workup may be necessary. Conservative therapies and exercises are meant to strengthen the muscles that support the spine. Once a diagnosis is made, a good back-pain-relief program can be followed, Dr. Babaria adds.

Why Daily Stretching Is Important

By now you’ve surely heard the phrase “sitting is the new smoking,” meaning that it poses a far greater health risk than people recognize. A growing body of research indicates that sitting for eight hours (or more) a day can be just as hard on your body (if not harder) than doing manual labor.

When you sit and slouch, the muscles in your upper back stretch out, Dr. Matt Tanneberg, a chiropractor and certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS), explains. When you do this every day, something called “creep” sets in—that is, long-term stretching of a muscle. When a muscle is stretched out too much, it doesn’t want to be torn, and its response is to spasm and tense up so it can’t be stretched anymore. It’s your body trying to guard and lock down that area. Every day stretches can help relieve creep.

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