This one is all about mobility – specifically through the mid-back or thoracic spine. First off, what is it and why it matters to your overall health, then some exercises.
What is the Thoracic Spine?
Your spine (backbone) can be divided into 5 sections:
- Cervical spine – the neck, with 7 vertebrae.
- Thoracic spine – the upper and middle back, with 12 vertebrae. It starts at the base of your neck and ends at the bottom of your ribs.
- Lumbar spine – the lower back, with 5 vertebrae.
- Sacrum (where the spine intersects with the pelvis)
- Tailbone (the lowest part – comprised of 4-5 fused bones.
Your thoracic spine is surrounded by muscles, nerves, tendons and ligaments that help with movement and flexibility. It is designed to be more stable than the cervical and lumbar regions, BUT it still needs to remain flexible, or other areas will over-compensate and cause pain.
What does the thoracic spine do?
Your thoracic spine has several important functions, including:
- Protects your spinal cord and branching spinal nerves: The nerves of your spinal cord pass through a large hole (called the vertebral foramen) in the center of the vertebrae in your spine. All the spinal vertebrae form a protective canal that protects your spinal cord.
- Provides attachments for your ribs: Thoracic vertebrae provide attachments for your ribs, except for the two at the bottom of your ribcage – the floating ribs.
- Supports your chest and abdomen: Your thoracic spine helps stabilize your rib cage, and your rib cage helps stabilize your thoracic spine. Together, they protect your heart and lungs. The joints need to be flexible enough to allow for the movements of breathing.
- Allows movement of your body: The soft intervertebral disks between your vertebrae allow you to twist and bend without sacrificing strength through your vertebral column. The joints in your thoracic spine allow for the greatest range of rotation of entire spine, but this region has the least flexion and extension of your spine.
Why does mobility here matter?
Mobility here is key to optimal neck health, shoulder health, and so much more. Yet, most are stiff and limited in this region and the rest of the mid-back.
When the thoracic spine is operating optimally, it allows you to move in basically all directions. This area is built for mobility and movement; bending and twisting, flexing and extending plus rotation. It’s what allows you to safely execute all the movements in everyday activities.
A lack of thoracic spine mobility impacts the lumbar spine, pelvis, shoulders and surrounding muscles. If the thoracic spine is stiff, these other areas compensate to allow you to move how you want to move. And, over time, these compensations can lead to injury. Here is a link to some research on lack of thoracic spine mobility as it contributes to low back pain.
What can you do to improve mobility in the thoracic spine?
Begin on hands and knees with knees under hips and hands under shoulders. Inhale as you move your sitting bones up towards the ceiling (cow), arch the back and pressing the chest towards the floor as you lift the head up. Exhale as you move from this “cow” position to “cat” position, rounding your back and curling your tailbone underneath you. to enhance movement through the thoracic spine, emphasize pushing the chest wall towards the shoulder blades through the torso. Repeat through this cycle 10 times.
This is a great way to improve rotation in the thoracic spine. Begin by lying on your left side with knees bent and arms straight out in front of you, palms touching. Lift your right hand straight up off of the left hand, opening up the arm like it’s the cover of a book. Follow the top hand with your head and eyes until your right hand is on the other side of your body, palm up, with your head and eyes turned towards the right. Hold this position for a few breaths before returning to the starting position with palms facing each other. Repeat up to 10 times on each side.
Place a foam roller perpendicular to torso. Sit in front of the foam roller, and cradle the head with your hands, interlocking the fingers to support the weight of your head.
Lean backwards so that your upper back is reaching backwards over the foam roller. Allow your shoulders to reach towards the floor while the foam roller supports your upper back. Start at the base of the neck and perform a curling, wave-like action over the roller without rolling up and down the spine. Do a few cycles in one spot, then move down towards the base of the ribs. Go slow. Repeat several times. This can be intense, so start with small movement and don’t spend more than a couple minutes in this position
Use the walls of a standard doorway to stretch the pecs. Bring each forearm up against one side of the doorway. Gently lean forward through the doorway keeping the arms on one side to stretch out the chest. Hold for 30 seconds.
Head to wall
Stretching the Extensor Muscles and strengthening the Anterior Neck Flexor. Stands with your back against the wall and pull the chin back towards the wall without tucking. There will be an upper cervical spine flexion and lower cervical spine extension. Hold for 15 seconds.
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In town ? i’ll be leading a 90-minute distressing Yin Yoga class December 10 from 3:30-5 pm at Namaste Yoga Studio in Kirkwood, send an email or register online.