Stiff Upper Back Leads to Shoulder Pain

“Our response to injury is like hearing the smoke detector go off and running to pull out the battery. The pain, like the sound, is a warning of some other problem. Icing a sore knee without examining the ankle or hip is like pulling the battery out of the smoke detector.” ~ Mike Boyle, author of Advances in Functional Training.

Photo by Keith Allison

Your spine has various degrees of movement and stability throughout its length from your neck down to your pelvis. Your cervical spine has the highest mobility and the least amount of stability, while your lumbar spine has the most stability and the least amount of mobility.

Many people make the mistake of increasing lumbar spine mobility by sacrificing its stability. They would perform excessive exercises that focuses on lumbar spine rotation. This can cause you to lose strength and support in the lower spine which can lead to disc herniation and instability.  Strength coach Mike Boyle, author of  “Advances in Functional Training,” suggests that you increase thoracic spine mobility to maintain lumbar spine, shoulder stability. At the same time, perform exercises that increase stabilization strength in your shoulder girdle to prevent hyper-mobility that can cause dislocations and joint tears.

Photo by S. Siebold

Although there is no single approach or exercise that addresses different shoulder and neck  pain or upper spine stiffness, start with exercises from the ground position and transition to a standing position.

Supine Torso Rotation

Lie on the right side of your body with your legs bent at 90 degrees and your arms in front of you. Place your palms together and clamp your knees together. Lift your left arm up and across your body until it touches the ground.

Rotate your torso to your left at the same time, and look at your left hand. Keep your knees together. Do not let it slide out of alignment. Hold this position for two deep breaths, and return to the starting position. Perform 5 to 10 reps for two sets per side. If one side is stiffer than the other side, perform an extra set on that side.

Kneeling Torso Rotation

Kneel on your left knee and put your right foot in front of you with both legs bent at 90 degrees. Place your right foot close toward the center line of your body. Hold a broom stick or similar object on top of your shoulders at the base of your neck. Tighten your left buttock for balance.

Turn your torso to your right as much as you can without moving your pelvis and legs. Hold the position for one deep breath. Turn to your left as far as you can, and hold the position for one deep breath. Perform 10 to 16 rotations total, switch leg position, and repeat the exercise again.

Standing Lateral Stretch With Rotation

Stand with your feet slightly apart, and lift your left arm over your head. Bend laterally to your right, and tighten your buttocks to maintain your balance. Push your hips slightly to your left. Reach across your torso with your right arm, and rotate your upper spine without moving your hip and legs. Hold the reach for two seconds, and face the front again. Perform 10 to 12 rotations per side for two sets.

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