Back pain, especially short-term pain, is one of the most common medical complaints in the United States. A variety of lifestyle factors, medical conditions, and injuries can lead to pain in the middle back.
Symptoms of mid back pain can include:
- short, sharp pains
- a dull, constant ache
- muscle tightness or stiffness
- a reduced range of motion
The following eight stretches are easy to do at home or in the office, and they can help relieve mid back pain, loosen tight muscles, and improve mobility.
1. Seated twist
The seated twist stretch can help determine how tight the mid back muscles are, while gradually increasing the range of movement in both directions.
Postures that involve a lot of sitting with hunched shoulders can cause the mid back muscles to tighten, limiting the spine's ability to twist. A person should focus on sitting upright, with the back straight and the head in a neutral position.
To perform the seated twist:
- Sit on a chair or the floor, with the legs crossed or straight out in front. Make sure to sit tall, while pulling the shoulder blades together and down.
- Slowly twist to the left side. Place the right hand on the outside of the left knee and place the left hand behind the back to provide support.
- Hold the twist for 20–30 seconds, then return to center.
- Repeat on the other side.
Repeat this stretch three or four times on each side. When working at a desk, practicing this and similar stretches throughout the day can help relieve tension in the back.
2. Child's Pose
Child's Pose is a restful, very simple yoga pose. It allows the spine to elongate passively while the person rests over their knees.
This variation keeps the knees apart to stretch the core abdominal muscles that connect the lower back to the long leg bone.
Placing the arms over the head gently stretches the latissimus dorsi, a large flat muscle that connects the spine and the long arm bone.
To perform the Child's Pose:
- Start in a kneeling position, with the hips and buttocks resting on the lower legs and feet.
- Spread the knees apart to a point that is comfortable. Then fold the body forwards, bringing the chest down towards the knees.
- If possible, bring the forehead to the floor, with the arms stretched out in front. The hands should gently rest on the floor, keeping the arms straight.
- Rest here for 20–30 seconds.
- Use the hands to gently return to an upright position.
3. Thread the Needle
Thread the Needle is a yoga pose that stretches the sides of the body, including the latissimus dorsi. This stretch can also help loosen the muscles of the upper back.
To get the most benefit, focus on keeping the arms extended outwards and maintaining a stretch that is comfortable, not painful.
To perform Thread the Needle:
- Start on hands and knees, with the knees directly below the hips and the feet in line with the knees.
- Keeping the hips, knees, and feet still, walk the hands out in front until they are below the shoulders. Keep the arms straight, so that a slight stretch is felt down the sides.
- Take the right arm and pass it under the left arm while rotating the chest. The right hand should rest on the floor, palm up.
- Try to lower the right shoulder as far as possible, while gently placing the right side of the head onto the floor. Look past the armpit, toward the ceiling.
- Hold this position for 20–30 seconds.
- Push upward, using the right arm to gently return to the starting position. Then, repeat the stretch using the left arm.
4. Cat-Cow Pose
Like the Child's Pose, the Cat-Cow Pose is another simple and gentle yoga exercise. It helps stretch and loosen the shoulders and the muscles that run the length of the spine.
Performing it regularly will gradually increase a person's flexibility.
To perform the Cat-Cow Pose:
- Start on hands and knees, with the knees below the hips and the wrists below the shoulders. Spread the fingers wide and press them through the fingertips to evenly distribute weight. The spine should be in a neutral position.
- Breathe in. Let the stomach drop toward the ground, and stick the buttocks out. Lift the head and shoulders, push the chest out, and look forward. This is the Cow Pose.
- Breathe out. Arch the back upward like a cat. Tilt the pelvis toward the ribs, drawing the shoulder blades away from each other and the belly away from the ground. Let the head drop toward the floor.
- Shift between these two poses 5–10 times.
5. Latissimus dorsi stretch
A person can do this stretch while seated or standing. It is important to keep the spine elongated and the chest raised. This simple exercise also stretches the serratus muscles under the arms.
To perform the latissimus dorsi stretch:
- Standing or sitting, raise the right hand straight up, over the head.
- Bend the elbow, so that the right hand drops toward the upper back.
- Place the left hand on the right elbow and gently pull the right arm to the left.
- While pulling the right elbow, bend the body in a straight line to the left, making sure not to lean forward or backward.
- Hold this stretch for 20–30 seconds, then repeat on the other side.
6. Passive backbend
This simple pose can bring relief after sitting at a desk all day. It stretches the scalene neck muscles, the serratus muscles, and the chest.
The passive backbend involves placing a supporting object beneath the back, such as a back roller, a foam noodle, or a rolled up towel or yoga mat.
To perform the exercise:
- Place the roll on the floor.
- Lie on the roll so that it rests beneath the shoulder blades, near the middle of the back. Place something under the head if it also needs elevation.
- Bring the arms away from the body, resting at a 45-degree angle.
- Hold this position for 1–2 minutes.
7. Cobra Pose
This yoga pose focuses on active back bending. People with mid back pain may find that they cannot go very far at first. Do not push the stretch beyond what is comfortable.
Back bending helps stretch the chest while strengthening the spine muscles.
To perform the Cobra Pose:
- Lay face-down on the floor. Extend the legs, with the tops of the feet resting on the floor.
- Place the hands under the shoulders, with the fingertips pointing forward. Bend the elbows and tuck the arms into the body.
- Engage the buttocks and leg muscles to help push the legs and feet into the floor. This is important, as it supports the lower back while the spine extends and the chest lifts.
- Breathe out. Push up, using the arms, to gently lift the head, then the chest from the floor.
- If possible, bend the back more by straightening the arms and lifting the chest further from the floor. Some people are not able to do this — only go as far as is comfortable.
- Hold this position for 20–30 seconds. Then, gently return to the floor and repeat the stretch two to four times.
The bridge can strengthen the muscles that run along the spine as well as those in the buttocks and abdomen. Performing this stretch regularly can help a person maintain an upright posture while sitting or standing.
To perform the bridge:
- Lie on the back with the knees bent. The feet should rest flat on the floor, pulled in as close as possible to the buttocks, and the arms should be by the sides.
- Squeezing the buttocks, raise the pelvis toward the ceiling, while rolling the torso upward until the back is off the ground. The shoulders are now supporting the body's weight.
- Hold this position for 5 seconds and continue to focus on squeezing the buttocks.
- Gently lower the torso, slowly letting each vertebra touch the floor until the back rests flat again.
- Repeat 12–15 times per set, and gradually build up to 3 sets.
Tips for managing back pain
Some simple steps can help relieve pain and reduce or prevent reoccurrence:
- Stay mobile. Movement can help relieve stiffness. Try to keep active and do some gentle stretching and exercise throughout the day.
- Medication. Over-the-counter pain medication, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, can help temporarily relieve pain and reduce inflammation.
- Complementary therapies. Some people find that massage, acupuncture, or transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulations (TENS) helps with longer-term back pain.
- Posture. Practice good posture while sitting. Try not to slouch, take regular breaks, and ensure that chairs and workstations are suitable and set up correctly. Some people find that standing desks help.
- Yoga and Pilates. Many people find that activities such as yoga and Pilates can help improve posture and relieve back pain.
Back pain is a common problem that can have serious effects on general health and wellbeing. Regularly stretching the middle back can loosen and strengthen muscles to help improve posture and reduce back pain.