Stretches and exercises for mid-back pain


I cannot stress enough that if you have mid-back pain, it is imperative that you stretch your tight muscles and strengthen your loose muscles. When your muscles aren’t too tight and aren’t too loose, you will hold the beneficial effects of your treatments longer and be less vulnerable to injury. Research supports that home exercise is more effective than taking medicine. 

Here I, Dr. Karin, share some of the floor exercises and stretches I used to loosen up my mid-back after my car crash. These stretches also help with combating the effects of sitting and slouching. Doing these stretches should keep your spine from hyperkyphosis (where your spine bends into an "old person curve"). 

To work on the extension of your spine, lie on your stomach, face down on the mat, with your hands palm up at your sides. With your nose and chin on the mat, carefully lift your head a off the mat using your back muscles:

prone prep for extension for mid-back pain

Figure 1: Lying prone (face down) on the mat, rest your chin on the mat.  

prone extension for mid-back pain active

Figure 2: Contract your back muscles to lift your head and chest off the mat.

Then slowly lower your head, resting your head on the mat turned to the right as far as possible (Figure 3). You may not be able to turn your head all the way to the right, and that is fine. Just turn your head as far as you comfortably can. After going through this routine a couple of times, your neck should loosen up. Your range of motion will improve a little bit with each repetition.

prone turn right for neck and mid-back pain

Figure 3: Strong stretch for the neck to the right. 

Once your neck relaxes, bring your head back to center, and raise your head slightly again (Figure 4). If it feels like you are straining, back off. If not, lift it higher. You can place your arms in front of you to support your upper body if you need to.

passive back bend for mid-back pain

Figure 4: Passive back bend. 

Then lower your head back onto the mat with your head turned to the left (Figure 5). Relax, allowing your muscles to elongate.

prone neck turn to left for neck and mid-back pain

Figure 5: Strong stretch for the neck to the left.

Then bring your head to the center and repeat the series of moves. Go a little bit higher each time without straining yourself. Repeat three times.

When your neck does not feel any strain when you lift it off the mat, bring your hands under your shoulders, squeeze them muscles between your shoulder blades to lift your hands as you raise your head (to strengthen your back muscles and work on your back extension; Figure 6).

active prone extension

Figure 6: Active back bend (hands off the ground).

 Again, move very slowly and concentrate on your breath (breathing in with lifting, breathing out with lowering) and form (keeping your shoulder blades down and engaged).

Cat/Cow Stretching For The Mid-Back

Get on your hands and knees to do cat and cow poses (Figure 7), breathing in with cow and breathing out with cat. This is a great way to loosen up your mid-back. Repeat the sequence three to five times.

cat for mid-back pain

cow for mid-back pain Figure 7: Cat and cow pose (also known as Camel Cow Pose)

Then roll onto your back to do some additional back stretches, which can help ease your mid-back pain. 

Passive Back Bends for Mid back Pain Relief

Start with the basic passive back bend. You only need two items to make this stretch effective. The first is a soft, flat surface. Figure 8 shows me using a mat because my floors are hardwood. A mat provides some cushioning between your body and the floor. You could also simply lie on the carpet or a rug; just make sure you have enough cushion for your back to feel comfortable.

supine stretch for mid-back pain towel

Figure 8: Passive back bend with a rolled-up towel. 

The second item you need is a large towel. Roll the bath towel into a tube and place it perpendicularly on the mat or floor. 

Lay down so the towel is behind your mid-back at the level of your shoulder blades (Figure 9-8). You can place your arms along your sides. For a deeper stretch, raise your arms above your head along the mat. This helps passively extend your back.

If you need a deeper mid-back stretch, use a foam roller instead of a rolled-up towel (Figure 9).

foam roller for mid-back pain

Figure 9: Strong passive back bend using a foam roller for mid-back pain. 

Lay in this position as long as is comfortable, but no longer than five minutes at one time. If you stay in this position too long, you may elongate your ligaments to a point that you may be vulnerable to moving your spine incorrectly, which could result in you tweaking your back.

Extending your spine this way helps counteract reaching and/or slouching all day. If you don’t take the time to work on the extension of your mid-back, you will become more rigid in your forward bend, which strains your neck, mid-back and low back over time. Even your hips, legs and more!

Stronger Passive Mid-Back Bends

 You can also use an exercise ball to do a passive mid-back bend. I advise people to sit on an exercise ball for twenty minutes every hour or so, whether you’re at home or at the office. Using an exercise ball is a great way to move while you sit, and then you can use it to do passive back bends throughout the day.

exercise ball stretch for mid-back pain

Figure 10: Passive mid-back bend over an exercise ball. 

To do a passive mid-back bend on an exercise ball, simply sit on the floor holding the ball behind you. Then move up the ball as it rolls under you until you are arching your back over the ball as far as you comfortably can (Figure 10).

Frequency is more important than intensity or duration with this stretch. You can stay in this position for a few slow breaths and then repeat it throughout the day. This is why it’s nice to have an exercise ball at work; you can sit on it for twenty minutes, stretch on it, stand for twenty minutes, stretch on the ball, and sit again.

As you become more flexible and get more comfortable moving on the ball, you can do a full back bend on the exercise ball.

This requires you to roll back on the ball and then reach your arms and hands over your head to brace yourself on the floor (Figure 11). This is a more comprehensive stretch in that it works your arm, back, thigh, calf, and feet muscles, not to mention your abs. 

extension for exercise ball for mid-back pain

Figure 11: Full back bend over an exercise ball. 


 After you are comfortable doing back bends on the exercise ball, you can work toward doing the wheel pose, which is shown in Figure 12.

wheel pose for mid-back pain

Figure 12: Wheel pose.

It took me over a year of daily stretching and strengthening to get back to doing the wheel pose after my crash. If you have no experience with the wheel pose, see a yoga instructor for the best way to enter this pose. This pose is as hard as it looks, and if you don’t understand the proper way to get into and out of it, you could injure yourself. It’s best to master the other back bends in this chapter before attempting the wheel pose.


 The mountain pose is a standing stretch. This is a easy and effective way to do a posture check through out the day. Check your plumb line, making sure your ears are over your shoulders, your shoulders are over your hips, and your hips are over your knees and ankles (Figure 13).

mountain pose for posture

Figure 13: Mountain pose from the front (above) and side (below).

mountain pose from side for posture

Plant your feet onto the mat. Make sure your toes are spread apart and you can feel your heels pressing evenly into the ground. The base of your big and little toes should bear equal weight. This triangular pattern of weight bearing on the feet is important for stabilization of the pose. This pose strengthens the muscles that are involved with holding a healthy posture, which is imperative for a healthy mid-back.

[1] Bronfort et al., “Spinal Manipulation,” Annals of Internal Medicine. 

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