The thoracic spine is a crucial element of your back. It’s often the cause of complaints for many athletes and gymgoers. In this article, we’ll take a deep dive into what the thoracic spine is, how it works, and how to improve its mobility.
What Is The Thoracic Spine?
When it comes to mobility, we often focus on the lumbar spine as it is necessary for a lot of different movements, but the thoracic spine is often neglected a bit.
In our spine, we have 4 different segments: The cervical spine, the thoracic spine below it, the lower back, and at the bottom the sacrum. The thoracic spine is the middle portion of the vertebral column and consists of 12 vertebrae. It is located in the upper back and is responsible for supporting the torso and protecting the vital organs in the chest, such as the heart and lungs.
This region has an origin at the base of the neck. It runs down toward the area where the ribs are located. The thoracic spine has a natural kyphotic curve, which allows for increased stability and flexibility, and its vertebrae have specific articulations that allow rib movement during breathing.
The thoracic spine is relatively immobile compared to the cervical and lumbar regions, but it still plays an important role in movements such as bending, twisting, and reaching. On the bright side, this area of the spine is stable and considered to be relatively rigid. Among people with spinal injuries, it is least common to see the thoracic spine affected instead of the other regions. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work on your thoracic mobility.
Whether on workout days or during your recovery, mobility work should become a part of your routine.
Why is Mobility in the Thoracic Spine important?
Thoracic mobility is important for several reasons:
Posture: The thoracic spine plays a significant role in maintaining good posture. The thoracic spine has a natural kyphotic curve, which helps maintain a balanced and upright posture. When the thoracic spine becomes stiff or immobile, it can lead to a forward-rounded posture, which can place increased strain on the neck, lower back, and other joints. This can lead to chronic pain, headaches, and other related symptoms.
Breathing: The thoracic spine is connected to the ribcage, which is essential for breathing. When the thoracic spine is mobile, it allows the ribcage to move freely, expanding and contracting as needed during breathing. This allows for maximal lung expansion and optimal oxygen intake. The thing is, stiffness or immobility in the thoracic spine can restrict breathing and lead to decreased lung capacity. Increasing your thoracic mobility might also improve your aerobic performance.
Pain relief: A lack of mobility in the thoracic spine can cause pain and discomfort in the upper back, neck, and other body areas. This can occur due to compensatory movements or increased strain on other joints. Improving thoracic mobility can help alleviate this pain by reducing compensatory movements and restoring a balanced and healthy musculoskeletal system.
Improved athletic performance: Thoracic mobility is necessary for efficient movement patterns and improved athletic performance. Athletes require a certain amount of thoracic mobility to perform movements such as twisting, reaching, and bending. A lack of mobility can lead to compensatory movements, which can increase the risk of injury. Improving thoracic mobility can help improve athletic performance and reduce the risk of injury.
Overall health: Thoracic mobility is important for overall spinal health and maintaining a balanced and healthy musculoskeletal system. A lack of mobility in the thoracic spine can lead to compensatory movements, pain, and decreased function. Improving thoracic mobility can help improve posture, breathing, and overall well-being. Think about it: the body always works as an entity – if one part is not working properly or is not as mobile as it should be, it has consequences on the entire rest of the body.
How Do You Get Mobility In The Thoracic Spine?
Now that we know why mobility in the thoracic spine is so important, we need to figure out how to achieve that.
Due to the rigidness of the thoracic spine, it can feel like a difficult process to promote mobility in this area. The good news is that the thoracic spine can be trained to become more mobile – and this can contribute toward your overall flexibility.
Sure, it might be a hassle to do mobility work on your spine every day, but remember that adequate mobility in the thoracic spine can help to promote better bending, movement, and twists in the upper body. It makes everyday tasks like working in the garden or getting into your car easier. As mentioned above, proper mobility in the thoracic spine also promotes better posture, which can yield further long-term benefits.
One of the best ways to improve mobility in the thoracic spine is with a series of exercises that targets the muscles in the area. You can look at different apps or courses to see what exercises are good for this type of mobility, but here are the most important ones summarized:
T-Spine Mobility Exercises
Many exercises can help to improve T-spine mobility. Start slow if you are new to these exercises, and gradually build up the intensity and duration of your exercise sessions.
Gentle stretching exercises can help increase mobility in the thoracic spine. The trick here is to find stretches that will truly target the thoracic part of your spine. Here are a few examples:
Cat-cow stretch: Begin on your hands and knees. As you inhale, arch your back and look up towards the ceiling. As you exhale, round your back and tuck your chin to your chest. Repeat this movement several times, moving smoothly and slowly.
Thoracic rotations: Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the ground. Cross your arms over your chest and slowly rotate your upper body to one side, keeping your lower body stationary. Hold the stretch for several seconds, then repeat on the other side.
Side bends: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your hands on your hips. Slowly bend to one side, keeping your feet stationary, and hold the stretch for several seconds. Repeat on the other side.
Wall slides: Stand with your back against a wall, with your feet about hip-width apart. Slide your arms up and down the wall, keeping your back against the wall. This exercise can help improve thoracic mobility and strengthen the muscles in the upper back.
It’s important to stretch gently and not push yourself too hard. Hold each stretch for about 30 seconds and repeat several times. Stretching regularly can help improve thoracic mobility over time. Don’t expect results immediately, when it comes to mobility, you will have to continuously work on it over time to see results.
Strengthening exercises can help improve thoracic stability, which can improve mobility. Here are some exercises that can help you most with that:
Scapular push-ups: Start in a push-up position, but keep your hands close to your sides and focus on moving your shoulder blades together as you lower and raise your body. This exercise can help strengthen the muscles in your upper back, improving stability and mobility in the thoracic spine.
Bird-dog: Start on your hands and knees, with your hands under your shoulders and your knees under your hips. Extend one arm and the opposite leg, keeping both straight. Hold for a few seconds, then return to the starting position and repeat with the other arm and leg. This exercise can help improve thoracic stability and strengthen the muscles in the upper back and core.
Dumbbell rows: Stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold a dumbbell in each hand. Bend forward at the hips, keeping your back straight, and let the weights hang down. Pull the weights up towards your sides, keeping your elbows close to your body. Repeat for several reps. This exercise can help strengthen the muscles in the upper back and improve thoracic mobility.
It’s important to start with lighter weights and to focus on proper form. Gradually increase the weight as you get stronger. This will help you build up strength and muscle mass over time.
Foam rolling can be an effective way to improve thoracic mobility. Here’s how it works:
Position: Lie on your back with a foam roller under your upper back, positioned perpendicular to your spine. Place your hands behind your head or crossed over your chest.
Movement: Using your arms, legs, and core, slowly roll back and forth over the foam roller, focusing on the upper back and thoracic spine. Stop on any tender spots and hold for 20-30 seconds before rolling on.
Benefits: Foam rolling helps to release muscle tension and improve mobility in the thoracic spine. By applying pressure to tight muscles, foam rolling can help to increase blood flow and decrease muscle stiffness, leading to improved mobility.
It’s important to foam roll gently and not apply too much pressure. If you experience any pain or discomfort, stop the foam rolling and consult with a healthcare professional.
Make sure not to apply pressure directly on the spine with a small roller, like a ball. This can potentially hurt your vertebrae. Regular foam rolling can be a helpful addition to a thoracic mobility program, but it should be done in conjunction with other techniques, such as stretching and strengthening exercises.
Chiropractic adjustments can help improve mobility and relieve pain in the thoracic spine.
Usually, a visit to the chiropractor will look something like this:
Evaluation: A chiropractor will evaluate your thoracic spine, including your posture, range of motion, and any areas of pain or discomfort. They may also use diagnostic imaging, such as X-rays or MRI, to get a better understanding of the issue.
Treatment: Based on the evaluation, a chiropractor will design a treatment plan specific to your needs. This may include spinal adjustments, manual therapy, and exercises to help improve mobility and reduce pain in the thoracic spine.
Adjustments: Spinal adjustments are a common chiropractic technique used to improve thoracic mobility. A chiropractor uses their hands to apply controlled force to the affected joint, helping to restore proper alignment and improve mobility.
Benefits: Chiropractic care can help to improve mobility in the thoracic spine by addressing any misalignments, reducing pain and inflammation, and improving the function of the surrounding muscles and tissues.
Physical therapy can help address any underlying conditions contributing to decreased mobility in the thoracic spine. Physical therapists can also provide specific exercises and stretches to improve mobility.
Why Do I Have Thoracic Spine Immobility?
There are several reasons why someone might experience thoracic immobility. Here are a few of them:
Poor Posture: Sitting for prolonged periods of time, especially with poor posture, can lead to a decrease in thoracic mobility.
Lack of Physical Activity: Inactivity can lead to tightness and decreased mobility in the thoracic spine.
Trauma: A traumatic injury, such as a car accident or fall, can cause damage to the spine and lead to decreased mobility.
Degenerative Conditions: Degenerative conditions such as arthritis, spinal stenosis, or osteoporosis can lead to decreased mobility in the thoracic spine.
Chronic Pain Conditions: Chronic pain conditions, such as fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome, can lead to decreased mobility and pain in the thoracic spine.
Muscle imbalances: Poor posture, lack of exercise, and repetitive motions can lead to muscle imbalances, which can contribute to decreased thoracic mobility.
Pregnancy: Pregnancy can also lead to immobility in the thoracic spine, as well as constantly carrying your newborn after birth.
If your thoracic spine is not as mobile as you’d like it to be, you’re not alone. Many people find that they have very limited mobility in the thoracic spine. On the bright side, understanding what causes poor mobility in the thoracic spine can help you avoid these issues and improve.
Working on your thoracic spine does not have to be a complicated matter. Sure, information, especially online, can be a bit overwhelming at times, but once you understand why mobility is so important and which exercises you could do to improve it, you are on the right path.
Just a few minutes of mobility work a day can hugely pay off in terms of how you feel and move throughout your daily life. Sometimes, a body part we don’t always pay a lot of attention to can improve your quality of life by a ton.
So, what are you waiting for?
Dr. Ahmed Zayed holds a bachelor’s degree in medicine from Alexandria university and is a practicing plastic surgeon. He’s our expert on all things nutrition, medicine, rehabilitation, and flexibility. Dr.Ahmed has been a medical content writer for more than 11 years and his work reached top publications such as the HuffingtonPost