Get a Massage
Your instinct for pampering is spot-on: Massages—whether they're from a professional or a foam roller—can help ease pain in the connective tissue, called fascia, that wraps around every muscle. Trigger point release, through treatments including acupressure and acupuncture, can also help, Manejias says.
Rework Your Workspace
One American Osteopathic Association survey found that in the past 30 days, 31 percent of office workers had felt pain in their upper backs, 38 percent in their shoulders, and 53 percent in their necks. To prevent all three, the association recommends positioning your computer screen so that the top of it is in line with your eyes and is tilted up slightly, and that you are seated at least a foot and a half away from it. (You should only move your eyes, not your head, when working on your computer.) Also, your elbows should be at your sides and your forearms parallel to the floor to prevent shoulder scrunching. Whenever you're stuck on a conference call, Manejias recommends listening on a hands-free device. Pinning your phone between your head and your shoulder can overwork and tighten your shoulder's muscles.
Text at Attention
You put 60 pounds' worth of pressure on your upper spine every time you look down at your phone (and bend your neck to a 60-degree angle), according to recent research from New York Spine Surgery and Rehabilitation Medicine. That's like having a second grader hanging on your neck. So stand up straight when you're texting! The less you tilt your head down, the less strain you'll put on the muscles and connective tissues in your neck, shoulders, and upper back.
"Regular exercise can help maintain proper strength and flexibility of the upper back in addition to the targeted exercises previously mentioned," Manejias says. "A program such as Pilates can help build up the scapular stabilizing muscles and core strength."
"Maintaining a neutral spine alignment at night is important in order to avoid sleeping in a position that stresses the joints and surrounding musculature," she says. Neutral alignment allows for the three gentle curves you have in your spine. If you're a side sleeper, remember that your spine should stay in a straight horizontal line throughout the night, she says. If your pillow jacks your head up or your mattress lets your hips sag, it's time to replace them.
"Stress and anxiety management are important in reducing muscular tension and pain," Manejias says. "Activities such as mediation, deep breathing, tai chi, and gentle yoga practices may also help reduce stress and encourage heightened body awareness, in order to avoid dysfunctional postural and muscular habits."
The rowing exercise, whether you are using a cable machine, resistance band, or an actual rower, should be a regular part of any exercise program, she says. Rowing strengthens your lats and trapezius muscles to help your upper back work at its best.
Try these specific upper-back stretches to take your pain relief to the next level:
Strengthen Your Shoulder Blades
The shoulder blades (aka scapulas) glide along your rib cage and rely on the surrounding muscles to do so smoothly and without pain, says Manejias. So if shoulder movements make your upper back sore, you may benefit from strengthening those muscles. While sitting, squeeze your shoulder blades together. Hold for five to 10 seconds, and repeat two to three times per day. Easy peasy.
Stretch Your Pecs
If you've got a tight back, you probably also have a tight chest, she says. Stand in a corner with your arms against each wall and slightly above your head. Move close to the wall until you feel a slight stretch along your chest. Hold for 15 seconds and repeat three times. Make this a regular part of your exercise routine.
Go Thumbs Up
The trapezius extends from the base of your skull through your shoulders and into your middle back, so any weaknesses in it can result in wide-reaching pains, she says. To strengthen it, lie on the floor on your stomach, and extend your arms straight out to your sides with your elbows straight and thumbs pointing up. Squeeze your shoulder blades together to raise your arms off the floor. Pause at the top of the motion, then lower back down slowly. That's one rep. Complete three sets of 15 reps.
The thoracic region of your spine sits at chest height and connects to your ribs—and it's rarely stretched. While sitting with your hands clasped behind your head, gently arch your upper back and look up toward the ceiling. Repeat 10 times, several times a day, Manejias says. It's easy to complete at the office, in bed, or between workouts.