Yoga For Upper Back Pain: 14 Poses To Relieve Pain And Tension In Your Upper Back

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It’s happened to most of us: you go to pick something up and then suddenly, you have a terrible pain in your upper back.

Upper back pain can be extremely troublesome because even if it’s not debilitating pain, you use your upper back for most everyday activities.

Fortunately, yoga can help alleviate upper back pain as well as prevent upper back injuries by strengthening your muscles and improving your body mechanics, posture, and core stability.

Additionally, if you have an acute injury in your upper back, you might be wondering how to safely practice with upper back pain without exacerbating your condition.

In this guide to yoga for upper back pain, we will cover how to modify yoga poses for upper back pain once you are already dealing with an injury as well as what yoga poses can reduce upper back pain and potentially prevent future upper back injuries.

We will look at: 

  • Can I Do Yoga With Upper Back Pain?
  • Common Upper Back Injuries
  • How Can Yoga For Upper Back Pain Help?
  • Yoga For Upper Back Pain- 14 Poses
  • Practicing Yoga With Upper Back Pain
  • Yoga Poses to Avoid With Upper Back Pain

Let’s jump in!

woman doing camel pose on a yoga mat

Can I Do Yoga With Upper Back Pain?

In most cases, it is safe to perform many yoga poses even if you have pain in your upper back, provided you don’t have an unstable spinal injury, a fracture in your cervical or thoracic spine, a compression fracture, or nerve damage. 

With that said, certain yoga poses are contraindicated with upper back injuries or arthritis in the spine.

Additionally, when you’re doing yoga with upper back pain, you will need to modify some poses to reduce stress, torque, or pressure on the neck, head, and spine.

If you are dealing with an acute upper back injury or chronic upper back pain, before you start engaging in a yoga practice, you should consult your doctor or physical therapist for a possible diagnosis and any exercise restrictions are limitations you may have due to your condition. 

A sports physical therapist can also help design a rehabilitation program to strengthen the surrounding muscles and correct any imbalances or mobility issues that might have contributed to your injury.

man doing puppy pose on a blue yoga mat- one of the yoga for upper back pain poses

Common Upper Back Injuries

According to the Cleveland Clinic, upper back pain may be due to damage to the muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones, cartilage, or nerves due to overuse or acute injury.

The most common causes of upper back pain include the following:

  • Strains or sprains to the muscles, tendons, or ligaments in the upper back
  • Osteoarthritis of the thoracic, cervical, or lumbar spine
  • Spinal stenosis
  • Fractures
  • Pinched spinal nerves
  • Herniated discs
  • Bone spurs
  • Disc degeneration
  • Trauma
  • Stress and tension
a yoga class doing side plank pose

There are several common causes of upper back pain and tension. While upper back injuries due to things like motor vehicle accidents and sports are often unavoidable, several of our daily habits or practices that can contribute to upper back pain are modifiable.

For example, the majority of cases of upper back pain are due to strains or sprains to the muscles, tendons, or ligaments in the upper back caused by lifting something too heavy or not lifting with proper body mechanics.

Remember to lift with your knees and hips by squatting down.

Poor posture and improper ergonomics often leads to upper back pain.

Hunching over to look at your phone, or slouching in your chair, rounds your upper back, which causes an overstretching and weakening of the traps, rhomboids, and levator scapulae.

Additionally, leaning to one side, or lying on your side with your head propped up bends the spine and can lead to muscular imbalances, with tension in the muscles on one side of the spine and overstretching of the muscles on the other. 

Shoulder, neck, and low back injuries can also contribute to upper back pain, as the shoulders offer refer pain to the upper back, or you may overuse your upper back muscles to compensate for weakness, pain, or immobility in other areas of the spine or back. 

Finally, acute or chronic stress can contribute to upper back pain tension. When we are stressed, the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated in the “fight-or-flight” response. 

a woman on a deck in front of a lake does rabbit pose- a yoga for upper back pain pose

This causes your breathing to become rapid and shallow and your muscles to tense up (for example, hiking your shoulders up to your ears).

Together, these physiological changes can cause tension in the upper back muscles, and may reduce mobility in the upper back, shoulders, and neck.

How Can Yoga For Upper Back Pain Help? 

According to research, yoga can be an effective modality to alleviate upper back pain, along with pain in the lower back, neck, shoulders. 

Yoga can potentially reduce upper back pain in the following ways:

  • Correcting muscle imbalances.
  • Strengthening the muscles stabilizing and controlling the upper back, neck, head, shoulders, torso, and spine at large.
  • Activating the muscles in the upper back to take stress off the joints and improve biomechanics.
  • Reducing stress and tension.
  • Increasing mobility in your spine, neck, and shoulders. 
  • Improving balance, proprioception, body awareness, and stability, which can reduce your risk of injuries and abnormal stresses on your spine. 
a woman doing supine spinal twist pose on a black yoga mat

Yoga for Upper Back Pain- 14 Poses

There are many yoga poses that can help prevent upper back pain by strengthening the muscles controlling and stabilizing the upper back (trapezius, levator scapulae, latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, and erector spinae), along with those in the shoulders, neck, and lower back.

Some of the best yoga poses for upper back pain prevention focus on improving posture and core strength, as habitual poor posture is one of the chief risk factors for developing upper back pain and injuries. 

The following are just a few of the best yoga poses to reduce upper pain, and prevent upper back pain in the first place by strengthening key muscles:

  • Extended Triangle Pose (Utthita Trikonasana)
  • Cat-Cow (Marjaryasana Bitilasana)
a woman does upward plank pose on a green yoga mat

Practicing Yoga With Upper Back Pain

In most cases, you can safely practice yoga with upper back pain, so long as you don’t have an unstable fracture or other contraindications to spinal movements. 

However, some modifications will ensure your asanas do not place too much stress on an injured tissue. Here are a few general considerations for doing yoga with upper back pain or an upper back injury:

  • Avoid lying directly on your head or neck, or placing all your weight on your head (as with Inversions, for example).
  • Use props like pillows, blocks, and bolsters to help support your head, neck, and torso to reduce the load on the upper back muscles and vertebrae.
  • Ensure your spine is held in a neutral position with limited twisting, flexion, or extension of the neck.
  • Avoid poses that put the spine into excessive flexion or extension.
  • Avoid poses that put pressure on one shoulder or the side of your head.
  • Listen to your body. If you have any pain when holding a pose, stop immediately.
a man does half lord of the fishes pose on a purple yoga mat with incense burning next to him

5 Yoga Poses to Avoid With Upper Back Pain

If you have an acute upper back injury, osteoarthritis of the spine, spinal stenosis, or degeneration of the discs in your back, there are certain yoga poses you should avoid, or at least modify. 

These poses can put undue stress and pressure on the thoracic spine, which can exacerbate an injury. 

Examples of yoga poses that can exacerbate upper back pain if not modified include the following:

#1: Dancer’s Pose

This, and other back-bending yoga poses, should be avoided with upper back pain caused by pinched nerves or spinal stenosis. 

If you are going to attempt this pose, lift your leg using your quads and glutes, rather than pulling up on your foot. Use a yoga strap to reduce the tension on the back muscles.

two people wearing black yoga clothes practice triangle pose in the park

#2: Fish Pose

Fish Pose can put your neck and upper back in a hyperextended position.

Modify this yoga pose for upper back pain by supporting your head and neck with a yoga bolster, yoga block, or pillow.

Place the supporting object under your thoracic spine, with the bottom of the support aligned with the bottom tip of your shoulder blades.

#3: Headstands

Inverted poses that involve weight bearing on the head or any headstands should be avoided if you have any sort of spine injury.

If you are going to try Inversions with back pain, make sure you are weight bearing through the hands or forearms, with your head and neck off the ground. Use a wall for support and safety.

#4: Plow Pose

Plow Pose puts the upper back and neck in too much flexion, which can exacerbate upper back pain.

It’s best to avoid poses like this that load body weight into the spine.

a man practices eagle pose in front of a body of water

#5: Full Wheel Pose

This advanced pose hyperextends the back should be avoided if you have any type of back pain.

There are quite a few other yoga poses that either place too much load or muscular demand on the neck or spine, which can aggravate upper back pain, but the above list should serve as a good starting place for examples of such poses.

Back pain is highly variable from one person to the next, so experiment to find out what works and doesn’t work for you. 

Above all, stop any yoga pose that causes discomfort and consult your doctor or physical therapist for guidance if you have concerns.

For more yoga poses for upper back pain, check out this yoga video for an entire yoga workout for those with tension and pain in the upper back.

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Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, and contributes to several fitness, health, and running websites and publications. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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