7 Best Stretches for Neck and Back Pain

More and more people are feeling the results of sitting all day: back pain, shoulder pain, and overall achiness. Stretching can help.

By Andrea Atkins

Americans used to be an active bunch—baling hay, lifting boxes, scrubbing floors, and walking everywhere. No more. The Information Age has given way to the Age of Ache, and Mary Ann Wilmarth, DPT, a spokeswoman for the American Physical Therapy Association, sees it daily at Back to Back Physical Therapy in Andover, Massachusetts, where patients often seek treatment for achy backs, sore shoulders, and stiff joints. 

“We go from sitting all day back to sitting all night,” Wilmarth says. “We see more and more people in pain. Anecdotally, we see more shoulder pain. People sit at their computer in a hunched position, their posture out of whack. And posture affects the shoulder.” Even if you don’t sit at a computer, sitting in a chair for a long period can alter you’re alignment, especially if that chair doesn’t offer proper lumbar support, Wilmarth adds. Taking frequent breaks to walk and stretch is a good way to counteract too much sitting and to maintain good posture.

Good posture isn’t just an annoying thing that your mom bugged you about—it’s a way of holding yourself that can keep back and shoulder stiffness at bay, Dr. Wilmarth says. “If you’re someone who tends to slouch, your back is rounded, your head goes forward and so does your shoulder. Eventually, it can make you more prone to tendonitis, rotator cuff pain or arthritis in your neck and back. If you are someone who is likely to have arthritis, you are not helping yourself by having bad posture.”

Proper Posture When You're Sitting

How do you know if you have good posture while you’re sitting? Start at the top of your head. Your ears should be over your shoulders, and your shoulders should be over your hips—in a fairly straight line, Dr. Wilmarth says. “Your chair makes a difference. You want your lower back supported either by you’re a good ergonomic chair that fits you well or, at the very least one that includes a lumbar cushion. When you sit at your desk, your knees should bend at 90 degrees and your feet should be flat on the floor. Your elbows should be at a 90-degree bend, your wrists neutral, and your eyes should be cast downward slightly, but not so you’re bending your neck very much. A slight bend is OK.” 

How to Stand for Better Back Health

When you’re standing, good posture also involves maintaining a straight line from your head all the way to your ears, shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles. Reach your head toward the ceiling, lengthening your neck and gently pulling your chin in. Your abdominal muscles should be tight or braced—think of it as a built-in corset for your body—to keep you in alignment. Keep your shoulder blades down and back, as if they were heading toward the middle of your back at your waist. “Don’t lock your knees,” Wilmarth says. “Keep them soft or slightly bent.” (Have a friend take a picture of you from the side, and you can easily assess how you’re doing on posture, Wilmarth suggests.) 

If you have aches and pains in your neck, back, and shoulders, they can be counteracted with stretches and exercises. Caution: You should have your shoulders and back evaluated by a doctor or physical therapist. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to such aches. 

If you receive physical therapy, chances are you will be prescribed stretches and exercises such as these, which we compiled with Dr. Wilmarth’s help. But don’t try them without your doctor’s permission:

CHIN TUCKS: 

Because your head and neck are likely causing some of your shoulder and back pain, start with this gentle stretch.

Push your chin toward your neck (don’t bow your head) like you are making a double chin, aligning your ears over your shoulders. It’s a very small movement that will align your vertebrae on top of one another, in a more neutral position. You should feel our neck lengthen and a slight pull on the back of your neck.

Start with five or 10 reps of this little stretch, and remember it as an antidote whenever you’re feeling tight, Dr. Wilmarth says.

SHOULDER CIRCLES:

Roll your shoulders backwards slowly in a true circle, keeping your back straight. Just making a gentle circle (it should feel comfortable for you) will open your chest and “puts shoulder blades where they’re supposed to be” in your back, says Dr. Wilmarth. You can do some forward shoulder rolls, too, but always end with backwards rolls, so you can pull your shoulder blades back, toward your waistline. Try five reps in each direction, and repeat any time throughout the day when you notice tension or pain in your shoulders.

CHEST STRETCH: 

We don’t remember that there are muscles in our chest that can become tight and pull on our shoulders and backs, Dr. Wilmarth says. This stretch will help loosen up the whole upper body.

Start in a doorway. Hold your right arm out to the side, palm facing forward, then bend at the elbow at a 90-degree angle, so that your forearm is pointed straight up and your palm is facing out. Gently place your palm on the door jamb (don’t extend it higher than your shoulder) and lunge forward with your right leg till you feel a bit of stretch in your chest area. (You don’t want to feel it in your shoulder. If you do, lessen the lunge or lower your arm.)

Hold the stretch and turn your head to the left. Tighten your abdominal muscles and stretch for 30 seconds. Then switch arms and legs and repeat, using your left arm and leg, and looking to the right when you begin the stretch.

SUPINE (ON YOUR BACK) CHEST STRETCH:

Another way to accomplish a stretch of those same muscles is to roll up a large bath towel lengthwise and lay down on it so that your head and spine are resting on it. Bend your knees. Place your palms up near your sides and breathe deeply. You’ll feel your chest relax. If it’s too painful, you can decrease the size of the towel underneath you by unrolling it a bit. This is a nice way to relax either before and after exercise or before bed. Start with 10 deep breaths and work toward holding for one to two minutes.

CROSS-BODY ADDUCTION STRETCH:

This will stretch out your shoulder, improving the back of your shoulder and improving your shoulder joint’s rotation.

Bring one arm across your body at chest level. With the opposite hand pull your arm above the elbow (closer to your shoulder), bringing it toward your body. Hold for 30 seconds. To vary the stretch, Dr. Wilmarth suggests changing the angle of the arm as it crosses your body. Cross lower or cross higher and work different parts of the back of your shoulder. If you feel pain, stop. You should feel it in the muscle and soft tissue. 

CAT/CAMEL STRETCH:

This basic stretch is good for most levels of fitness (and pain.) “It gets everything moving very gently,” Dr. Wilmarth says. “Do it morning, evening, or in the middle the day. Do five or 10 in each direction, very slowly, focusing on getting the movement right.”

Begin on your hands and knees, keeping your back neutral. Round up, tightening your abdominals like you were rounding over a ball, and tucking your chin toward your chest. Then, allow your back to sag down, pointing your buttocks and head toward the ceiling at the same time. Get extension in each direction. “This is good for stretching the upper and full back, which helps the shoulder. It also requires weight bearing, which is good for the shoulder joint. It’s an excellent exercise,” Dr. Wilmarth says.

CHILD’S POSE:

From your all fours position, push your buttocks back and down to sit on your heels. (If you cannot reach your heels, put a pillow between your buttocks and heels to support you, Dr. Wilmarth suggests.) Bend your head to the floor, reaching your arms straight out ahead of you, or to the side of you with your thumbs facing up, which will put less stress on the shoulder joint. Stretch your upper back. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds. Release and then try it again. Start slowly, and if it feels good, you can add them several times a week. 

Once you’ve stretched this whole area, try some shoulder blade squeezes, Dr. Wilmarth says. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and think about pushing them down toward your lower back. Keep your chest open to solidify what you have just done. Hold for 15 seconds. Feel better!

 

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