3 Gentle Stretches for Upper Back and Neck Pain From All Those Hours of Sitting (and Stress)
Say goodbye to your stiff neck, achy shoulders, and tense upper back.
Long days of sitting at a not-quite-ergonomically-sound WFH set-up can wreak havoc on the neck, shoulders, and upper back (and don't even get us started on the lower back). Add stress into the mix, and you've got yourself a recipe for serious discomfort. Timely anxiety aside, upper back pain is a common ailment for a lot of people—whether you're prone to rounding your shoulders while writing emails, occasionally sleep funny on your neck, or spend your days lifting and moving heavy objects (that includes your little ones, too). Upper back and neck soreness can also lead to issues like headaches, poor sleep, and decreased range of motion.
“The neck often takes on more pressure from stress and tension build-up, since it falls forward when we look at a computer screen or phone,” says physical therapist Jennifer Esquer, PT, DPT, and creator of The Mobility Method and The Optimal Body.
Giving yourself a soothing neck massage can feel amazing in the moment, but doesn’t always relieve deeper structural issues at play, which can cause the pain to return again and again. The good news is, you can banish a lot of upper body discomfort with some everyday, easy-on-the-body stretches and low-impact mobility exercises right at home.
“Only working on the neck muscles with massage can miss the underlying issue: the shoulders rounding forward and the upper back becoming super stiff,” Esquer explains. “Working to improve upper back mobility will naturally help relieve tension and pressure in the neck.”
We tapped Esquer for her favorite PT-approved moves that target neck, shoulder, and upper back pain. “These are all great to do on a daily basis, especially if you work at a desk or phone all day,” she says. “I love doing exercise one before getting out of bed every morning and exercise three to take breaks from the computer throughout the day.”
Next time you’re fidgeting from upper body discomfort, try these stretches at home for both instant and long-term relief. Read on for step-by-step instructions and watch Esquer's demo video above for visual cues and tips on proper form.
(A) Lie on one side with the top leg bent over the bottom leg (bottom leg is straightened, but relaxed).
(B) Hold the top leg down with the bottom hand.
(C) Relax the head (place a pillow underneath, if needed).
(D) Inhale and gently reach the top arm and shoulder blade forward.
(E) Exhale and slowly open the top arm across and behind you (as if your arm is the cover of a book being opened).
(F) Bring the top arm back in front of you (closing the book).
Repeat for 10 to 15 reps on each side.
(A) Get onto all fours, then sit back on your heels (as tolerated—you can also sit on chair and lean over a lower surface like a couch or bed).
(B) Bring the right hand behind your head with elbow out to the side.
(C) Inhale as you twist up to the right from the upper body and look toward the ceiling (don't let the hips and lower body move).
Note: This will likely be a smaller movement than you expect, especially if you’re tight and have limited range of motion. Use your inhale to twist up as far as you can gently and without shifting the hips or lower back.
(D) Exhale as you rotate back down to center.
Repeat for 10 reps on each side.
(A) Stand next to a wall and place the leg closest to the wall in front and slightly bent.
(B) Tuck tailbone under to start and keep hips squared forward (not facing the wall).
(C) Reach the arm closest to wall up and over into a diagonal behind you against the wall.
(D) With the shoulder blade remaining down and back toward the spine, rotate the upper body away from the wall until you feel a stretch in the front of the chest.
Note: If your arm starts falling asleep, stop the exercise and start over again as needed.
(E) Inhale into the lower ribcage and exhale completely for 10 slow breaths.
Repeat on the opposite side.