road cyclist racer descending hill

Upper Back and Neck Pain Relief

road cyclist racer descending hillOne of the most common complaints I hear from cyclists has to do with neck and upper back pain. The posture of hunching forward with a rounded thoracic spine (upper back) and chronic hyper-extension of the cervical spine (neck) is one part of the problem. Another factor is the static contraction of the upper back and neck muscles required to hold up the weight of your head, while your neck is in extension. Because we don’t move our necks through a wide range of motion while riding the muscles don’t contract and release. Static contraction doesn’t permit adequate circulation in the muscles, resulting in fatigue and weakness.

A proper bike fit would help to minimize over-extension of the neck, but it’s impossible to avoid extending your neck under load while riding. Throw in underdeveloped upper back muscles and we’ve got a recipe for some serious postural imbalances. How this repetitive stress manifests in our bodies is unique for each of us. Some cyclists feel stiff and tight in their necks. Others of us feel a diffuse ache in our upper backs, between the shoulder blades.

However you experience cycling related discomfort, here are some simple exercises that will provide upper back and neck pain relief.

The Warm-Up

Repeat this sequence several times until you feel a mild “burn” in your upper back muscles.

  • Stand with your feet shoulder width apart and look forward, tilting your chin up ever so slightly, as if looking just above the horizon.
  • Reach your arms straight out in front of you, hands splayed wide, palms facing in toward each other.
  • Bend your elbows and bring your thumbs toward the tops of your shoulders; lift your elbows up toward the ceiling.
  • Squeeze your shoulder blades toward each other as you reach your elbows back behind you.
  • Bring your elbows forward and up again, touching your thumbs to the top of your shoulders once more.
  • Repeat as often as needed to warm up before or after a ride or to prepare for the following exercise.

Thoracic Extension with Cervical Flexion

This exercise can be done laying on a low bench, ottoman or even on the edge of your bed; I’ve even done this on a stairway, extending and even getting some traction in my upper back over the top step. Work with whatever you’ve got.

upper back release #1
Begin in neck flexion. Draw your elbows together and forward, bringing your chin toward your chest as you lie back with the edge of the bench across your shoulder blades.
upper back extension #2
Support the weight of your head as you wiggle off the edge of the bench then hold steady again for several breaths.
upper back extension #3
Every 5 breaths or so, wiggle just one more vertebra over the edge and begin to release your chin away from your chest.
upper back release #1
Eventually the edge of the bench should rest at the lowest part of your upper back.

IMPORTANT: To come out, clasp your hands behind your head again, draw the elbows in toward each other and using your arms, lift your head bringing your chin toward your chest before sitting up.

Although initially the neck starts in flexion (chin drawn down toward the chest), then moves into extension, remember to support the weight of your head throughout the exercise; the neck muscles should be relaxed as you move into extension and as you return to sitting upright.

These exercises are equally valuable and important for people sit for long periods driving or at a desk—particularly when working on a laptop computer, which exacerbates cycling related postural distress. Besides releasing and rebalancing musculoskeletal tension in the upper back and neck, it also opens up the chest wall, allowing for deeper breathing.

As a backbend, it is mildly stimulating to the nervous system; you should feel great from even just a couple of minutes of these exercises. I recommend them after every ride or for a few minutes every evening before bed.

PLEASE NOTE: If your lower back or core is weak, keep your knees bent when you lie back to minimize strain on the lower back. If you have severe pain, numbness, tingling or burning, please get your doctor’s approval before attempting this exercise; certain conditions such as disc compression or dysfunction should be ruled out to avoid exacerbation.