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STOP Doing this to fix your rounded upper back. (Do THIS instead!)

STOP

Cranking your back over a foam roller may do more harm than good

When people bend themselves back and over a foam roller to alleviate upper back pain, the effect is not as efficient as you might think.

If you use a foam roller to correct a rounded or “hunched” upper back, I’ve got a much better idea than just cranking your back and neck over the roller.  

To understand why, we need to know some basic anatomy. The vertebrae (bones in your back) and facets (parts of those bones that overlap and assist the spine to move smoothly) are oriented differently in each part of your spine. What that means is each area of your spine also moves differently. 

Your lower back is primarily designed to flex and extend- within reason- meaning that it bends forward and backward. However, in the upper back, the vertebrae and facets are oriented more like shingles on a roof. Your upper back is particularly designed to to side bend and rotate.   

Get more motion through the upper back and ultimately correct your posture or improve your performance in different areas with correct foam rolling and movement.

Whether it’s your golf swing or just being able to move your upper body better, it makes more sense to do exercises that mobilize the upper back in those rotation and side bending movements. But first, begin with exercises and stretches that are a little more dynamic to warm up your spine, perhaps gentle stretches like a cat-camel or cat-cow.   

Cat camel START
Cat Camel Finish

Then, one of my favorite exercises to start physical therapy sessions with will get a little more movement through the upper back and spine. It's called opening the book:

Opening the book START
Opening the book FINISH
  • Lie on your side, with your head supported and legs flexed at the hips to about 90 degrees. (This will help to isolate parts of your upper back.) 
  • Hold your arms out and parallel with hands flat on top of each other. 
  • As you ‘open the book,’ it’s important to really watch your shoulder motion. 
  • Try not to move from the shoulder- rotating your arm up and back, but instead move your chest bone- your sternum- to ‘open the book.’
  • This does work on some of that rotation and softly opens the upper back, helping to prevent or reduce upper back pain. 
  • Another note is not to drop the arm behind your body without allowing the spine to rotate with it.  

Always lead with your spine and listen to your body.

You might progress this exercise into side-lying arm circles:

Shoulder circles START
Shoulder Circles intermediate
  • Think of the arm and your body almost as a clock face. The tips of your fingers will touch each little minute hand of the clock. 
  • Again, lie on one side with hips and knees flexed to about 90 degrees or whatever is comfortable and stable. Head is supported 
  • Gently stretch the arm beneath you over your head- as you are able- rest and support the head on this arm. 
  • Extend the upper arm out in front of the body with the palm to the floor. Slowly, gently rotate your body so the arm moves like it’s a clock hand. Lead from the spine and chest.
  • Swing down toward the hip and open your chest as, following the spine, the arm swings lightly behind the back and over your head, returning to 3:00 as it were. 
  • Again, remember to listen to your body and let the spine lead. Work with a comfortable range of motion- don’t push into discomfort or pain. This is one of my favorite exercises to do with patients to alleviate upper back pain. 

Another great exercise for upper back pain is side bending:

Sidebending START V
Sidebending END V
  • Resting on your side, use pillows to help support the body as needed. 
  • Reach your upper arm and opposite leg to stretch out the tissues on the side of the body, helping to open up some of the space along the rib cage.

You can also try an exercise on your hands and knees. It's a popular exercise called threading the needle:

Threading needle START V
Threading needle END V
  • Threading the needle requires you to stabilize a bit more, so I don’t love this exercise for everyone, but some patients really enjoy it and find it works well for them, and also has an aspect of strengthening. 
  • Make certain that you have a stable pelvis with hips squared on knees about shoulder-width apart. Lead from the spine as you ‘thread the needle.’ 
  • Fluidly extend and rotate your arm across and below the opposite shoulder/arm, reaching to the floor with the upper arm/shoulder. 
  • Switch sides. Go slow. 
  • Make sure that you’re not overextending the arm behind. 
  • I like to think of this movement as if you’re in a narrow tube- like one of the playground tubes that kids play in. 
  • Avoid touching the imaginary ‘tube walls’ and purely rotate through the spine. 
  • Try not to bend or shift to the side- an indication of compensation. 

A fantastic thing to do to help you with a stiff or rounded upper back is to work on breathing into your back:

Crocodile breathing
  • The ribs attach to your spinal vertebrae- the bones that make up your back. By breathing into the back, we expand the space between the ribs. There are many different options for exercises to help raise those ribs- I like to use crocodile breathing:
  • Lie on your stomach. Place pillows under your belly and beneath your forehead for support as needed. 
  • Focus on using the breath to expand your back- it may be challenging to feel that area, so it’s a great option to put something like a rice bag or a cell phone on your back. 
  • Perhaps ask someone else to gently place their hand on your back so you can feel the rise and fall of the rib cage.
  • Feel your back expand like a cylinder in all directions, in and out, really starting to stretch all that tissue. 
  • As you breathe out, get a sense of the rib cage relaxing into a smaller cylinder.  

 

After you’ve acclimated to these sorts of upper back mobility drills, you may eventually want to follow these up with some strengthening of the muscles in your back as well. 

Also, I wouldn’t say ‘NEVER use a foam roller at all’ to help you with your posture, just find more efficient ways to do so based on what you learned today.

As a physical therapist, we avoid doing wasting your time with inefficient exercises that don't help your upper back pain.

That being said, you can still use the foam roller up and down your back and get some pops, etc., as long as you don’t have osteopenia, osteoporosis, or fractures. A foam roller may still be a helpful tool, but the way that I see a lot of people utilizing them isn’t the most effective way to use a foam roller. So many other alternatives will work better for you- like the exercises indicated above.  

If you’re still having trouble with or rounded or hunched up or back, definitely find a physical therapist near you. You can search for “physical therapists near me.” 

If you’re in the Lansing area and this is something you’re looking for help with, it’s definitely something that we see all the time.  Our Physical Therapists can help. We see people going through this all the time and we’re here to help get you back to enjoying the quality time with family and friends that you’ve missed.

If our expert physical therapists can improve your pain level and increase your time spent doing what you love even just 10% – and often we are able to resolve and strengthen the area of the injury much more than that- then isn’t it worth it to reach out?

Chris S
AUTHOR

Dr. Chris Sovey

Healthy Consumer PT

"We Help Adults 40+ Living With Pain, Stiffness, Or Loose Joints Get Healthy, Age Stronger, And Get Back To The Activities They Love, Even If Past Treatments Have Failed"

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