According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), back pain ranks as the second most common neurological ailment after headache. It’s not merely because people are forgetting to lift with their knees. In fact, if you’re reading this while sitting in front of your computer, you may be helping to lay the foundation for your own future discomfort. Prolonged periods of sitting, like that done in today’s office environment, have been linked to bad posture, poor circulation, and neck strain.
“Muscle tension, especially in the neck and shoulders, is the number one cause of headaches,” according to Dr. Mark Schillinger, director of the Schillinger Chiropractic and Wellness Center in Marin County, California. Back pain is a major cause of employee absence in the workplace nationwide.
Thankfully, it doesn’t take a lot to help prevent potential problems from occurring. Periodic stretching of the arms and upper back muscles, including the rhomboid and trapezius (or “traps”), should be part of your daily work regimen. The key is to find a few easy exercises that you’re comfortable doing at your desk, and then stick with them.
“I have people frequently tell me that they’re embarrassed to take a stretch break at the office,” says Schillinger. “I point out that these days more and more folks recognize the need to take a pause from their computer and give their muscles some attention. It really doesn’t require much time and the benefits are worth it.”
Here are four simple upper back muscle stretches that can be done just about anywhere you find yourself seated — in the office, on an airplane, or even at the kitchen table. Just remember to take it slow whenever you begin a new exercise routine.
Begin by sitting upright, relaxing your shoulders, and placing your hands on your lap. Carefully lean your right ear over your right shoulder. Slowly move your chin down and let it drop toward your chest while keeping your back straight. Bring your head up until your left ear is over your left shoulder. Gently roll your head back and around to your right shoulder once more.
Even out the rhythm, keep your breathing calm and smooth, and repeat five to 10 times in each direction.
Think of these as something akin to pushups for your shoulders. With your feet flat on the ground, straighten your back and allow your arms to hang down at your sides. Inhale and hold your breath while bringing your shoulders straight up as high as possible, then squeeze them tight for about two seconds. Breathe out and just let your arms drop back down. Do about eight to 10 shrugs per set.
For a bit more of a challenge, consider adding some lightweight dumbbells to the mix.
This one starts out like a shoulder shrug. But after pulling your shoulders up to your ears, move them back and down in a circle. Repeat the same movement in the forward direction as well. Five rolls both toward the back and front should do the trick.
This stretch makes a nice compliment to neck rolls and helps to strengthen the rhomboid and pectoral muscles. Sit up straight and touch your fingertips to your shoulders with your elbows pointed out to the side. Keeping your fingers in place, exhale and slowly pull your elbows together in front of you until they touch. Breathe in and allow your arms move to their original position.