Foam Roller Exercises for Upper Back and Shoulder Pain

March 29, 2016 9:31 pm

A woman performing a foam roller exercise - Oklahoma Pain Management

One of the most common problems for American workers is upper back or lower neck pain due to poor posture. Especially for those who work at a desk, upper back pain, also known as upper thoracic pain, can turn chronic if not treated early on.

What causes upper thoracic pain?

Forward-slumping shoulders, a rounded back and hung neck are the first three perpetrators of upper back pain. When you hang your head in front of your shoulders, it puts an extra 10 pounds of weight on your neck muscles for every inch you move forward. As a result, you may feel pinching or soreness between your shoulder blades because the muscles are overworking to hold your head up.

When your shoulders are slumped forward or you sit with a rounded back instead of having your shoulders over your hips, this can also cause a misalignment of your spinal vertebrae, causing nerve pinching, soreness and more. When at work it’s best to practice proper desk ergonomics.

How to Alleviate Upper Back Pain

Foam roller exercises and stretches are some of the easiest and most effective ways to relieve upper thoracic pain. It can also help loosen your shoulders and lower neck, which can also contribute to the pain you’re experiencing. Using a foam roller is also known as a “self-myofascial release” which eases pain by loosening the soft tissue portion of the connective tissue in your muscles. It also can improve blood and lymphatic circulation and stimulate the stretch reflex in your muscles.

Ultimately, these exercises work the muscles to strengthen them, but also to stretch them and loosen any stiffness. By both strengthening and stretching you are creating a more stable foundation for your bones to be supported by, as well as promoting better posture.

Here are a few exercises you can try with a foam roller. As with any exercise, always consult your physician before attempting to do any physical exercise. You can find a foam roller near the exercise equipment at your local sporting goods store, or order one online here. You want one that is stiff enough to hold its shape when you lie on it, but soft enough to be comfortable.

“Hug the World”

Lie on the foam roller vertically so the foam roller is aligned with your spine. Be sure your head and neck are supported fully, as well as your tailbone. Your entire spine should touch the foam roller, so tuck in your tailbone to lie as flat as possible.

A woman performing hug-the-world foam roller exercise - Oklahoma Pain Management

Once you’re steady, balanced and comfortable, slowly lift both arms toward the ceiling until they are perpendicular to your body. Next, slowly open them all the way until they reach the ground, as if you’re opening up for a hug. Take a full 5 seconds on the way down. If you feel any discomfort or pain, only go as far as your body will let you.

Once you’re opened up, slowly begin to lift your arms to hug yourself, extending them all the way out as you lift as if you’re “hugging the world.” Take a full 5 seconds for this step as well.

Repeat 10 times, alternating which arm goes on top during the “hug” phase.

Arm Extension Swings

Lie vertically on the foam roller just like in the “Hug the World” stretch. Start with both arms extending forward from your shoulders.

A woman performing arm extension swings - Oklahoma Pain Management

Slowly lift your right arm straight toward the ceiling, and reach all the way back above your head until your arm is touching the floor. At the same time, reach your left arm toward your toes, as if you are trying to make your arms as long as possible. If you feel any discomfort or pain, only go as far as you can.

Slowly lower your right arm back down to your side as you bring your left arm up. Switch back and forth 10 times.

Rolling Shoulders

Lie vertically on the foam roller and raise both arms to where they are extending straight toward the ceiling from your shoulders. Slowly roll your shoulders forward 5 times. Next, alternate and roll them backward.

A woman perofming rolling shoulders - Oklahoma Pain Management

If you don’t feel comfortable having your arms extended forward, you can roll your shoulders while your arms are at your sides.

Punch the Sky

Lie vertically on the foam roller with your arms extended out toward the ceiling aligned with your shoulders. Slowly reach your right arm toward the ceiling as far as you can, leaving the left arm extended and relaxed. You should be working your shoulder muscles here, so really engage them during the exercise to stay controlled. Though this exercise is called “punch” the sky, you don’t want to force your arms forward too fast. Take it slow and “punch” each arm 5 times.

A wmoan performing punch the sky - Oklahoma Pain Management

Once you’ve completed alternating one arm to the next, “punch” both arms forward together 10 times, reaching as far as you can toward the ceiling.

Tuck and Roll

Gently move off of the foam roller and onto your hands and knees, and place the foam roller along one side of your body. You can place a pillow or mat under your knees for comfort.

A woman performing tuck and roll - Oklahoma Pain Management

If the foam roller is along your right side, reach your left arm under your body and place it palm-up on the foam roller. Push your left arm forward so that your body begins to twist, and the foam roller begins to roll toward your elbow. Follow your arm with your head. Roll back to the center position and repeat 5 times. Turn your head away from your arm for another 5 times. Flip your hand over, palm-down, and repeat another 5 times with your head toward your arm, and 5 times away from your arm. Switch the foam roller to the opposite side and repeat.

Only go as far as you’re comfortable with while doing this stretch. You should not feel any pain.

Spine Release

Sit down on the floor with the foam roller lying behind you horizontally. Slowly put yourself up and sit on top of the foam roller where your tailbone is directly on top of it. Use your hands for balance on the floor while you slowly lie down on top of the foam roller.

A woman perofmring spine release - Oklahoma Pain Management

Once you’re balanced, slowly begin to crawl your legs forward so that the foam roller moves up your spine toward your neck. You can go up and down as many times as you feel necessary. If you feel a place of soreness, feel free to stay at that position to allow more release.

Be careful getting off the foam roller once you’re done with your exercises. If necessary, simply roll off the foam roller onto the floor and safely sit up. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when getting up from the foam roller.
These exercises are great for temporary alleviation, but if you continue to experience upper back pain, contact Oklahoma Pain Management for a consultation. Their experienced pain management doctors can tailor a non-surgical pain relief option for your needs.