An upper back strain, while painful, is usually not serious if treated properly. A sudden, forceful movement can overextend the muscles or tendons in the upper back, causing microtears and inflammation. Typical symptoms include localized pain, muscle spasms, and reduced range of motion.
While the natural instinct may be to stretch out a strained upper back to try to loosen it up, this can actually make things worse by aggravating the injury. So what should you do? And when is stretching okay or even helpful?
Why You Shouldn’t Stretch an Acute Upper Back Strain
In the first 72 hours after an upper back strain, stretching should be avoided. Here’s why:
Inflammation Needs to Run Its Course
After a strain, the body triggers an inflammatory response to promote healing. Blood flow increases to the area, and inflammatory chemicals accumulate. This is why strains become red, swollen, and painful. Stretching can intensify this response and delay healing.
Further Microtear Risk
The muscles and tendons in the strained area are vulnerable and weak following the initial tears. Aggressive stretching can lead to additional microtears and extended recovery time.
Pain Causes Guarding and Spasms
Stretching a sore, inflamed upper back almost always hurts. This causes the muscles to reflexively contract and spasm to guard against further pain. These spasms maintain inflammation and tightness.
When to Begin Gently Stretching After 72 Hours
After about 3 days, the inflammatory response starts to settle down. At this point, gentle stretches can be beneficial to promote proper healing. The goal is to align the healing fibers correctly without reinjuring them.
Here are some tips for safe stretching after the first 72 hours:
Go Slowly and Listen to Your Body
Move into stretches gradually only until you feel mild tension. Do not push to the point of pain. Come out of a stretch immediately if you feel any sharp pain.
Target Areas Around The Strain
Rather than stretching the tear directly, stretch muscles above and below the strained area. This helps relax guarding without manipulating damaged tissues.
Apply Heat First
Heat increases circulation and relax muscles before stretching. Place a heating pad on the upper back for 10-15 minutes before beginning gentle stretches.
Try Gentle Range of Motion Exercises
Gently move the upper back in different directions to lubricate the injured area. Simple shoulder rolls, neck turns, and arm circles with limited range promote healing.
Use Topical Analgesics If Needed
Over-the-counter pain relief gels or patches with ingredients like menthol or lidocaine can temporarily numb sore areas to enable comfortable stretching.
By following these precautions, gentle stretching after a few days may aid the recovery process. But during the initial inflammatory stage, resting the injury is key. Avoid anything that causes sharp pain, spasms, or guarding, as this indicates additional damage. With a little patience, most mild to moderate upper back strains heal on their own within a few weeks. Stretching at the right time can help optimize the process.