We have progressed to become a world of sitters. We sit at desks all day, we sit and watch TV, we sit at restaurants, we sit to drive, we sit. I’m sitting here typing this now so shame on me. We sit too much. Why is sitting bad? Oh, don’t get me started on that! I’ll just pick one small topic for today … Your Thoracic Spine!
Do you know where your thoracic spine is? Don’t worry, a lot of people don’t know. Quite a few people I’ve met have told me that the spine is the spine, it’s all one part. But, in reality, the spine is broken into parts. My focus is the thoracic spine. It starts at the base of the neck where your shoulders meet and goes down most of the length of your back. Above the thoracic spine is the cervical (neck) and below it is the lumbar (lower back). There are 12 vertebra in the thoracic spine. The thoracic spine is also where your ribs attach. This is what I refer to as the “forgotten zone” in the spine. Forgotten because we forget to move it!
The thoracic spine likes to be mobile. It is built to move, to help you move. It is made to rotate, flex, and extend; basically that means it is meant to move in all directions. But, since we don’t use the thoracic spine, we are developing into a world of stuck middle backs. Do you find yourself slouching a lot? Do you find it difficult to lift? Difficulty lifting overhead? Difficulty taking a deep breath? If you answered yes to any (or all) of those, then you have a thoracic spine mobility limitation.
Now that you know you have a thoracic spine mobility limitation, how does this impact the rest of you? A LOT! You see, your cervical and lumbar spine (above and below the thoracic, remember me saying that earlier?), well, they’re build for stability. Which means they’re not built to move as much as the thoracic spine is. BUT, when you have a mobility limitation somewhere then there is a compensatory action that happens elsewhere. So, for us with limited thoracic spine mobility, that means that our cervical and lumbar spines now have to make up the movement to help us get the job done. This causes abnormal stresses in the neck and the back. So, do you have low back pain? Does it hurt to move your neck sometimes? Does it hurt your neck and/or lower back when you lift anything from the ground or overhead? Now, for simplicity sake, I’ll just say that you have a thoracic spine mobility problem (understand that there may be other musculoskeletal movement disorders too and you should seek out help from a trained professional such as a physical therapist).
How do you fix it? How do you work on improving your thoracic spine mobility? It’s really not that difficult…. You just have to start moving it. Moving your thoracic spine will make for a happy thoracic spine.
For starters, stop sitting so much. Get up and start using your legs. After you do that for a bit, then you can work on using these stretches:
- Corner stretch. Simple. All you need is a corner. I find a few of them around my home and have a few at work. Come to think of it, corners are in lots of places.. usually in corners (yes, I crack myself up, humor me). Once you find your corner then stand with your feet together facing the corner. Raise your arms out and up to shoulder height and bend your elbows to have your hands face the ceiling. Place the inside of your elbows on the walls. Lean your whole body forward to the corner. Be careful not to let your back extend or to push your neck out. I’ve had some people try to put their nose on the wall. This is not the time to play turtle with your head. Keep your head and back in line. Just lean forward. Hold that position for at least 30 seconds. I recommend you do that a few times. I also recommend you do it a couple of times during the day to help get you out of the slouched seated position you’re probably in all day.
- Thoracic extension. This requires you to have either a roller (best), a couple of tennis balls (next best), or a chair with a low back rest (not preferred but it can work). The idea is to extend your back over this. If you’re using a roller, then I would start with a few back and forth passes, 5-10 is good, and then start working your thoracic spine into extension. If you’re using the tennis balls, you can do the same thing with the back and forth passes but it’s more difficult. The tennis balls will allow you to get a slightly more specific extension stretch based on where you have them placed. Either way, hold the extension position for a few seconds then start to flex and extend your spine over the roller or tennis balls. (flex and extend means that you lift your chest up and then press it back down over the roller/tennis balls).
- Thoracic spine rotation. This one is best performed at the bottom of a deep “ass to grass” squat. Once you get into that deep squat position, then put your right hand on your left foot, then put your left hand behind your neck, then rotate. Hold this position for at least 10 seconds, longer if you’re brave… be brave! Repeat on the other side. Go through at least 3 times on each side.
I know I don’t take the best pictures… but you get the idea!
I hope you give it a try! Let me know how it feels after. Are you able to stand taller? Sit up straighter? Lift heavier? Keep your body more upright in the squat? I bet you will! 😉
Don’t let yourself become like this….
Happy thoracic spine = happy human!
Now, go off and do great things for yourself! 🙂
Dr. Cori Campbell, DPT