Here’s How Sports Bras Can Cause Neck Pain, Especially If You Have a Large Chest

Photo: Getty/ Brooke Pifer
Having large breasts can make exercising a challenge. As someone who has had a large chest for most of my adult life, I have spent a lot of money on sports bras that ended up holding everything together as effectively as scotch tape would have kept the Titanic afloat. What's more: Sports bras always leave my neck, shoulders, and back on fire. So if you experience neck or upper back pain from your sports bra, you're not alone.

The thing is, chronic neck discomfort and pain from sports bras isn't just a slight inconvenience—it can be a huge factor in whether a young woman or nonbinary person with breasts gets involved in a sport or exercises at all. In a 2020 study published in the Women's Health Journalresearchers found that likelihood of self-reported back pain went up 13 percent with every cup size from A to HH. A 2021 study interviewed marathon runners in London and found that close to one-third of female marathon runners experienced rubbing, chafing, and bra slippage, and they lost up to 4 cm in their running stride when wearing an ill-fitting bra.

Experts In This Article
  • Jessica McManus, PT, FAAOMPT, physical therapist, functional medicine health coach, and owner of Full Circle Wellness PT
  • Saad B Chaudhary, MD, Dr. Saad Chaudhary is a board certified spine surgeon with a specific focus on minimally invasive spine surgery. He has joined the Spine Institute with considerable experience in the treatment of the entire spectrum of cervical, lumbar and thoracic spine...

If you're experiencing chafing and rubbing from your sports bra, consider applying anti-chafe cream to the area that chafes. Additionally, try to get fitted for a bra that is supportive but not too tight so that it doesn't create friction on your skin. However, if you're dealing with neck pain from your sports bra, there are a few stretches and strength exercises that can help alleviate neck pain while you search for other options. Below, we break down why your sports bra might be causing neck pain, and we share a few exercises you can try to alleviate it. (We've also included tips on finding the best sports bra.)

Why your sports bra might be hurting your back

Sports bra straps generally place pressure on the upper trapezius muscle, says Jessica McManus, PT, FAAOMPT physical therapist and owner of Full Circle PT and Wellness. If your bra is too tight—or if all of the supportive force is coming from the straps on your shoulders (especially the racerback shape)—it can place most of the pressure on your neck, shoulders, and back. The upper trapezius muscle can respond to this pressure by contracting more, McManus explains. Here's the thing: The upper trapezius is not meant to be in a constant low-grade muscle contraction. It is only supposed to engage when you move your body, so these chronic contractions can cause that sore, tight feeling. Additionally, the downward pressure of the heavier chest can create a slouched, rounded shoulder position. This forward-leaning position can cause neck pain, as well.

Here are a few chest stretches to try

Finding a sports bra that fits your body well is a must, but strength exercises can also help reduce your pain. People with large chests who experience neck or upper back pain should dedicate 10 minutes to doing core back and some neck exercises and stretches 2-3 times a week, says Saad Chaudhary, MD, a board-certified orthopedic spine surgeon at Mount Sinai Health System. This will strengthen the trapezius muscles, latissimus dorsi, and rhomboids. These are the muscles that can pull you back upright and help stabilize your balance and posture, according to Dr. Chaudhary. Additionally, the weight on your chest can strain your chest muscles over time, so stretching them in ways that open and loosen those muscles will also help them support you better and improve your posture. Here are some stretches that McManus recommends.

Doorway stretches: Stand in a door and place both hands out on either side of the doorframe, as if you were trying to stop someone from entering. Hold on to either side of a doorway and stand straight. Slowly lean forward so that you feel an opening in your chest. Hold for three sets of 30.

Thoracic open books: Lay on your side and face the way your body is pointing. Raise your top arm and extend it out straight in front of you. Next, take that arm and raise it up and over, like you are doing the sprinkler dance move or your arm is a door opening all the way. Follow your arm with your head. Think of your arm like the cover of a book you're opening. Repeat on both sides for three sets of 10.

Pectoral Stretch: Lay on a foam roller so that it is parallel with your spine. Open your arms wide (like you're at the front of the Titanic) and hold it. Repeat three times for 30 seconds each.

Trapezius stretch: Stand near a wall, raise your arms straight up, and touch the wall. Then slowly raise your hands by engaging your back muscles. This will stretch your back and engage and disengage your trap muscles.

Choosing the right sports bra

When it comes to neck pain and upper back pain, two straps are always better, according to McManus. Two, separate, wide straps can disperse the weight of your breasts on your shoulders instead of concentrating it along your inner neck and down your spine.

Next, make sure there is a thick, hooked band in the back. Part of a supportive sports bra, according to Dr. Chaudhary, is a wide strap at the bottom of your bra because it lifts the breasts and provides overall support.

McManus also recommends finding a sports bra that encapsulates your breasts, keeping them supported and their weight evenly distributed—much like a regular bra. And, much like you would expect with traditional bra fittings, it's wise to have yourself measured and fitted by a professional.

An essential piece of this conversation is that you should have more options and better ones, too. Numerous experts say the solution to neck pain is to have a perfect sports bra, but if you have big breasts, you know how hard that can be to come by. Good sports bras are a matter of health and access, and you deserve to have the option to be active without pain or embarrassment from significant chest movement. In the meantime, hopefully, these stretches and bra-fit tips can help you find the right bra for your sport or daily life.

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