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September 09, 2021

Standing Desks and Upper Back Pain

By Paulina Wegrzyn.
Paulina Wegrzyn is a physiotherapist residing and practicing in British Columbia, Canada. She completed her Master’s in Physical Therapy at the University of Toronto, in Ontario, Canada. She currently treats a large persistent pain population. Paulina is a certified pelvic floor physiotherapist, and takes a biopsychosocial approach to treatment. She uses a combination of education, manual therapy, soft tissue release, and exercise prescription with her clients. She is interested in educating others regarding the benefits of physiotherapy in order for them to feel empowered to take control of their health. She enjoys writing content related to this field of study as she believes that physiotherapy should be accessible to all.
Pauline - Masters Qualified Physiotherapist


Upper back pain is a common complaint of sedentary office workers. When using a sit-stand desk properly, it is possible to significantly improve and even eliminate symptoms of upper back pain.

Reasons for Upper Back Pain

Sedentary office workers often have upper back pain due to their sitting posture during their work day.

Throughout the day, our shoulders have a tendency of falling forward as well as inching upwards as we carry tension in the muscles at the top of our shoulders. These muscles are called the upper fibres of trapezius muscles, and are a common place to carry stress and tension.

This prolonged shoulder position can create upper back pain, as our shoulders are pulled into a suboptimal position for many hours as we work on our computers.

When your shoulders fall forward, the shoulder blade is pulled further away from the midline of your back, preventing the muscles in the upper portion of the back from working effectively. Over time, these muscles become lengthened due to this habitual posture.

When muscles become lengthened, over time they lose their strength. In addition to a loss in strength, muscles become less effective at firing or engaging, since they are used to being “turned off”.

In addition to the muscles in the upper back, the joints in the upper back are also affected by poor posture over time. If your shoulders are continuously rounded forward, this will naturally lead to a forward curve of your upper back as well. This forward flexed posture in the upper back can lead to a loss of extension in the upper back over time, or an increase in discomfort when an individual tries to extend or stretch this region of their upper back.

Ways to Decrease Upper Back Pain: Posture

The most effective way to decrease upper back pain is by sitting and standing in a more effective posture throughout the work day.

When sitting at your desk, try to keep your shoulders back and prevent them from falling forward. Instead of overcorrecting this posture by puffing out your chest (this can actually increase your back pain because you are overarching your spine), try widening your collarbones and thinking about gently “unrounding” your shoulders.

Next, picture bringing your shoulder blades down and towards the midline of your body. Again, this does not mean overcorrecting and squeezing these muscles tightly: it simply means gently thinking about a small change in positioning of the shoulder blades by activating the muscles that maintain your shoulder blades in a good position.

A lot of individuals find that sitting in this position for a long period of time is quite challenging. This is perfectly normal! Most sedentary office workers have weak postural stabiliser muscles, so do not get discouraged.

Some individuals find it easier to maintain this better static position while standing: this is one of the many reasons why a sit-stand desk is so beneficial. The PRO-Series desks is one sit-stand desk option that may help.

Perfection is not the key to decreasing your upper back pain through an improvement in posture. No one will stand or sit in perfect posture throughout the entirety of their workday! However, increasing one’s awareness of their posture and trying to check in and modify it throughout the day may lead to a large improvement in symptoms of discomfort.

Ways to Decrease Upper Back Pain: Exercises

There are two exercises that our resident physiotherapist prefers for decreasing upper back pain.

Cactus Stretch with a Towel

This stretch is an effective way to increase the ability of the joints in the upper back to extend.

As mentioned above, if sitting in a forward flexed posture that allows for the shoulders to round forward throughout the day, the joints in our backs tend to lose their ability to extend, since they are constantly flexed forward.

Start by taking a medium sized towel and rolling it up into a tight roll. This towel should be smaller than a beach towel, but larger than a hand towel. You should be able to comfortably fit the towel roll in your hand.


Next, lay down on your back on the towel perpendicular to your spine (so that your spine and the towel make a cross shape). Start with the towel at the base of your neck, at the large, prominent joint where your neck ends and your upper back begins.

Lastly, bring your arms up so that they look like the branches of a cactus, or like you are trying to make a snow angel.

Sit here with the towel stretching the individual joint on which it is positioned. After 45-60 seconds, curl up and adjust the towel so that it is one joint lower, and repeat this process. Continue moving the towel down your back, holding for approximately one minute at each joint, until you reach the end of your shoulder blades.

Wall Angels

Wall angels are a strengthening exercise for the postural stabiliser muscles of your shoulder blade/upper back.

Start by bringing your heels, buttocks, upper back, head, elbows, and hands onto the wall. From here, nothing can leave the wall.

Using the muscles in between your shoulder blades, bring your arms up above your head and slowly lower down to the starting position.

 Avoid arching your back and popping out your ribs in this position: this is a common way that individuals “cheat” with this exercise. Lastly, if you cannot keep all of the abovementioned joints on the wall comfortably, take one step away from the wall and try again. If it is still uncomfortable, do your best! The motion is the most important part of the exercise, regardless of your starting position.

Do 10 reps and 3 sets of this exercise daily to increase the strength of the three main muscles in the middle of your back- rhomboids, middle fibres of trapezius, and serratus anterior muscles.

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