7 Easy Foam Roller Exercises to Release Neck and Upper Back Pain

avatarJennifer Dene

Relax your upper back while easing neck pain with these simple foam roller exercises.

If you end each day going to bed with a tight back or wake up in the morning with a stiff neck, a lack of upper back mobility may be to blame. Here’s why:

The spine is made up of five segments: the cervical spine (neck), thoracic spine (upper back), lumbar spine (lower back), sacrum (pelvis), and coccyx (tailbone).

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Each segment performs specific movements, and the role of the upper back is to provide mobility. That means your thoracic spine should be able to twist, turn, flex, and extend, while your low back provides stability and support.

Unfortunately, a sedentary, tech-focused lifestyle leaves many people feeling stiff at the end of the day. That’s because sitting all day causes the shoulders to round forward, which increases pressure on the neck and shoulders, causes headaches and even decreases lung capacity. (1, 2, 3, 4)

Luckily, you can regain mobility in your thoracic spine with these seven simple foam roller stretches. Aim to perform this sequence each evening before bed for five days, and you will notice that your back naturally stands taller and hurts much less.


Foam Roller Exercises for Neck and Upper Back Pain

Upper Back Rolling | 10 breaths

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This exercise provides a soothing massage for your upper back. Make sure not to roll onto your low back or neck.

  1. Sit on the mat with bent knees. Rest your mid-back against the roller and support your head in your hands. Lift the hips one inch from the mat.
  2. Slowly roll up and down your upper back, breathing slowly and deeply as you go.
  3. Continue to roll for 10 full breaths.

Lateral Rolling | 10 breaths per side

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Next, massage your lateral spine to increase mobility in the shoulder.

  1. Start in the same position as the exercise above. This time, rotate your trunk to the right side, so that the roller presses against the base of your right armpit.
  2. Gently rock side-to-side in one-inch movements. Breathe slowly and deeply.
  3. Continue to roll for 10 full breaths before repeating on the left side.

Upper Back Extensions | 5 reps

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This lovely extension elongates the spine and stretches the chest. It is perfect after a day spent hunched over a computer, phone, or steering wheel!

  1. Sit on the mat with bent knees. Rest your mid-back against the roller and support your head in your hands.
  2. Inhale to gently extend your spine over the roller. Your head does not need to touch the floor.
  3. Hold for a full exhale and inhale, then engage your abs on the exhale to return to the starting position.
  4. Repeat for five reps.

Shoulder Blade Glides | 5 reps

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This super-subtle mobility exercise helps to protect your shoulder from injury.

  1. Kneel on the mat and hold the roller out lengthwise between your hands. Relax your shoulders.
  2. Inhale to reach the roller forward and glide your shoulder blades away from the spine.
  3. Exhale to squeeze your shoulder blades together. The roller will move closer towards you.
  4. Repeat for five reps.

Note: Do not bend your elbows to bring the roller inwards. The shoulder blades should be doing all the work!

Thread the Needle | 3 reps per side

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This move improves rotation in the upper back to help with everyday functional movements, like twisting when reversing your car.

  1. Start on all fours. Place the roller lengthwise next to the LEFT side of your body. Reach your RIGHT hand under the body and rest it on the roller, palm facing up.
  2. Inhale to lengthen the spine, then exhale to rotate and lower your RIGHT ear and shoulder towards the mat. The roller will move away from your body.
  3. Hold this position for one full breath before returning to the starting position.
  4. Repeat for three reps on this side and then switch sides.

Open Book | 3 reps per side

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This stretch will ease tension in the upper back and neck. Move slowly and use your breath to relax your entire body.

  1. Start by lying on your right side. Rest your left knee and foot on the roller, and cradle your head in your hands with both elbows pointing ahead.
  2. Inhale to rotate your back down to the mat, so you’re looking at the ceiling. Then exhale to continue twisting until you’re looking to your left. Your top arm will rest on the floor.
  3. Hold for the inhale, then return to the starting position on the exhale.
  4. Repeat for three reps on this side, and then switch sides.

Note: If the foam roller feels uncomfortable, you can place cushions between your knees and ankles instead.

Cat-Cow Slide | 5 reps

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Take traditional cat-cow to a new level with this foam roller version. You’ll get a greater range of motion in your spine as you stretch your chest and abdominals.

  1. Start on all fours. Place your fingertips on top of the roller and round the spine in “cat”.
  2. Inhale to slide the roller up your arm as you lower your chest to the floor in “cow”.
  3. Hold for the exhale and inhale. Then exhale to engage your abs and hamstrings to reverse the roll, returning to the starting position.
  4. Repeat for five reps.

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Your Next Workout: 20-Minute Total-Body Foam Roller Routine

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