Updated: Nov 1, 2021
Many of us don't put a lot of thought into our thoracic spine (mid-back). The majority of my clients share their woes about their lower back pain and stiffness, neck issues, tight, immobile shoulders. Most people will then restrict their movement, many times avoiding lower body exercises and spinal bending.... and end up becoming more stiff, tight and immobile because of it.
So what's the thoracic spine got to do with it? Are you surprised to learn that all of these challenges can actually stem from an immobile thoracic spine? And that regular movement can actually help to improve those symptoms?
What is the thoracic spine?
The 12 vertebra of the thoracic spine (mid back) extend from your shoulders to waist and attach to the ribcage, protecting your lungs and heart. It is made to flex, extend, and rotate. It is supposed to be highly mobile! (Just watch a toddler toodle about their day). A large percentage of lose this mobility as we age, even more as we remain hunched over our desks, on our phones, not getting enough movement in our day.
When the thoracic spine is immobile or lacks mobility, it leads to stiffness in other joints that are vital for function and performance - like your hips. Additionally when the mid-back stiffens up you are more likely to have what we referenced above - neck strain, shoulder pain ,and low back (lumbar spine) issues .
So what's going on with my lumbar spine?
Our lumbar spine (low back) is actually built for stability. The lumbar spine supports the weight of the body and helps resist excessive rotation. The lumbar spine can be mobile - it does flex and extend (we've all seen those people in yoga class whose backbends are in their lower back, but their mid-back remains quite stiff), but it would much rather remain stable and help produce power from the hips. When our thoracic spine is inflexible, it forces our lumbar spine to compensate and move in ways that can lead to strain, fatigue, pain, and injury.
What about my shoulders and neck?
The thoracic spine also plays an important role in assisting with the movement of the neck. The thoracic spine contributes 33% of neck flexion movements and 21% of neck rotation! This means that if your thoracic spine is immobile, you can be more predisposed to neck strain and pain. Additionally, a stiff mid-back causes the shoulder blades to sit in a poor position - this poor positioning of the scapulae (shoulder blades) leads to what we call "rounded shoulders". Rounded shoulders lead to tightness in the upper back, chest and neck muscles. This leads to pain when lifting overhead or even breathing deeply!
What can I do?
Increased thoracic spine mobility can help increase lung volume and fitness ability and reduce low back and neck pain. It's even been suggested that people with increased thoracic motion may live longer than those without it (Lau et al.)!
Below are a few of my favourite movements to get you started - from foam rolling techniques to yoga asanas.