If you’ve ever experienced pressure or pain in your lower back (lumbar spine), neck or shoulders, it could be that your thoracic spine needs a little love.
The thoracic spine (the part of the spine that starts at the base of the neck to half-way down the back) is often neglected. It is often the case that focus is given to areas in the body where pain is felt, but not where pain originates.
What Is The Thoracic Spine?
The thoracic spine is the middle section of your vertebra between your neck and lower back. It consists of 12 thoracic vertebra (T1-T12) and your rib cage (1). The thoracic spine is built for stability. It helps hold the body upright, and provides protection for the vital organs in the chest.
The thoracic spine is prone to stiffness, mainly because it is the least flexible region of the spine. It is difficult to stretch and can therefore cause different issues related to the shoulders, neck and lower back.
The lack of flexibility in the thoracic spine is mainly because it is connected to the rib cage, which holds and provides a protective space for the major organs of the body. If this area was too flexible, we’d probably do a lot of damage to our inner organs!
The thoracic spine also contains thinner intervertebral discs (2) than the cervical or lumbar spine. This contributes to the thoracic spine’s relative inflexibility. This is a bonus, however, when it comes to disc problems, because it is quite difficult to slip a disc in the thoracic region (due to the limited flexibility).
Pain and The Thoracic Spine
A stiff thoracic spine can cause referred pain elsewhere in the body, or localized pain. It can create, or be caused by the following issues:
• Excess loading of the lower back, neck, and shoulders, which can cause pain in these areas as well as headaches. This is often caused by poor posture or sitting for long periods (such as those who work a desk job).
• Pain as a result of joint dysfunction involving the ribs and where they attach at each level of the thoracic spine.
• Although it is very rare, a herniated disc in the thoracic spine could be the source of pain, or degenerative disc disease.
• Arthritis of the thoracic spine can also be the source of pain in older individuals. This can cause tenderness, pressure to the nerves, and limited range of motion.
• Vertebral fractures (most common in the elderly).
• Kyphosis, or hunchback. Although this is more of a deformity (ankylosing spondylitis or Scheuermann’s kyphosis) or the result of poor posture.
Thoracic spine stiffness can also cause changes to breathing. Since normal breathing requires the ribs to move like a bucket handle (they lift to the sides), stiffer rib joints can suppress this motion. This can make it difficult to take a deep breath.
In extreme cases, a stiff thoracic spine can lead to a condition known as Dowager’s Hump, where the soft tissues at the base of the neck start to thicken.
How To Fix A Stiff Thoracic Spine
Issues involving a stiff thoracic spine most commonly stem from modern-day problems. People who spend hours in the car or who sit poorly in front of a computer or TV screen are particularly prone to thoracic stiffness (and the referral pain this can cause). Individuals with poor posture are also highly at risk.
The best thing you can do to improve thoracic spine mobility is to stretch and exercise the vertebrae in this area. But how do you do that if the thoracic spine is relatively inflexible to begin with?
Reducing stress tension across the shoulders, utilizing a foam roller, and getting into some non-common stretches are the answer. Also, fixing your posture is an important aspect, too, so I suggest you look into my articles I’ve written on posture and the anterior pelvic tilt.
Be sure to do the following exercises and stretches following either a prolonged activity (like a long drive or sitting at work) or pre- and post-workout.
1. Thoracic Spine Mobilizations with Foam Roller
1. Lay on your back with a foam roller horizontally underneath your upper back at about the top of your shoulder blades.
2. Support your head by clasping your hands behind your head.
3. Roll back and forth slowly all the way from your upper shoulder blades to your middle to lower back. Try to avoid rolling the lower back.
4. Do this for 2-3 minutes, and utilize the variations in the video above. Try to avoid curving the lower back, and keep it straight.
2. Open Book Exercise
1. Start by lying on one side with the knees bent, in line with your hips. Bring the leg that is closest to the floor straight, with the top knee remaining bend. Place a pillow, ball, or bolster under the knee that is bent.
2. Place both arms out in front of you, elbows straight and palms together.
3. Inhale and take the top arm to the ceiling as you look up.
4. Exhale and bring the top arm down behind your body as far back as it will go.
5. Stay in this position for 4-5 deep breaths, relaxing your shoulders.
6. Inhale, and then exhale and return to starting position. Repeat on the other side. Do 3 repetitions for each side.
3. Bench Thoracic Spine Extension
1. Kneel in front of a bench, low table or sturdy box and place your elbows up on the bench about shoulder-width apart. Kneel far enough from the bench that you have room to sit back and drop your chest through your arms to get a nice spinal extension.
2. With your elbows on the bench, sit your butt back, relaxing the chest and head, while pressing your chest toward the ground. You should feel a stretch down your triceps and lats as well as your thoracic spine. Try to get your biceps by your ears!
3. Hold here and breathe for 15-30 seconds and perform 3-4 repetitions.
4. Rock-Back Quadruped Extension-Rotation
1. Get on your hands and knees, and sit back on your heels.
2. Put your right hand behind your neck, keeping your left hand on the floor in front of you.
3. Rotate toward the ceiling, along your thoracic spine – you want to focus on twisting the thoracic spine, keeping the lower (lumbar) spine immobile.
4. Do ten repetitions each side, holding for two seconds at the top of each rotation.
5. Wall Lat Stretch
1. Stand about 2 feet from a wall, with your feet shoulder width apart.
2. Keep your back flat and hinge over from your hips, as you place your palms on the wall in front of your shoulders.
3. Gently press your chest downwards, until your torso is parallel with the floor.
4. Breath deeply and hold for 15-30 seconds. Come back to standing position and repeat 3-5 times.
6. Pec Stretch Over Roll
1. Start by lying on a foam roller against your spine vertically. Your head and neck should be on the foam roller with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
2. Let your arms hang down making a “T” shape with your upper body. You can experiment here by holding your arms a bit lower, and then a bit higher up on the ground, but never hold them so that they go above the shoulders – a “T” shape should be the highest you go.
3. Hold the stretch for 1 minute, breathing deeply, rest and repeat 2-3 times.
7. Chest Doorway Stretch
1. Stand at the end of a wall or in a doorway facing perpendicular to a wall.
2. Place the inside of your bent right arm on the surface of the wall. Position your bent elbow at shoulder height (or move your elbow a little higher to stretch into the lower pec muscles).
3. Turn your body away from the positioned arm, and hold the stretch for 15-30 seconds. Repeat with the opposite arm, and do 3-5 repetitions on each arm.