Thoracic Spine Love: Why exploring upper spine movement is critical for maintaining a healthy back.

By Kari Kemper

Pain in the neck?  Pain in the low back?  Pain in the shoulder? Over 80 percent of Americans experience back issues. Most assume that the pain they are feeling in the low back (lumbar spine) or neck (cervical spine) sources from that specific area.  But typically issues in the upper and mid back (thoracic spine) are to blame.

Sitting at a desk all day, driving long hours, hunching over your smart phone all lead to poor posture and muscle deconditioning.  Providing a little love and attention to the thoracic spine can provide immediate relief and assist you in developing healthy habits for your day-to-day activities to keep your back pain at bay.

What is the thoracic spine and what does it do?

Your thoracic region is the section of your spine found in your upper to middle back. It starts at the base of your neck and ends at the bottom of your ribs. It’s the longest section of your spine, consisting of 12 vertebrae, labeled T1 through T12.

Your thoracic spine is where your ribs attach creating the rib cage to protect your lungs and heart.  This area is designed to be stable enough to protect these vital organs, but mobile enough to allow for the movements of breathing.

The thoracic spine is not designed just to protect the heart and lungs.   We need the thoracic spine to rotate efficiently to perform a variety of movements such as walking, running, throwing, as well as pushing and pulling to name a few.

Why is the health of the thoracic spine important?

The structure of the thoracic vertebrae and the attachments to the ribs to protect our heart and lungs means this is the area of the spine that has the least range of motion in flexion and extension. This area can become notoriously congested and feel locked due to poor posture by habits of our modern lives.  We are becoming more rounded in that area of the spine resulting in more flexion.  When your spine is predominantly in flexion, it makes it difficult to rotate and limits range of motion.  Less range of motion in the thoracic region can cause an increased range of motion in the cervical (neck) and lumbar (lower) spine, which can become problematic over time as these more flexible regions of the spine begin to overcompensate. 

Our bodies will take the path of least resistance to get us where we need to go. If you lack the proper amount of mobility in your thoracic spine, then the most mobile junction of your spine—T12/L1, the lowest point of the thoracic spine and the highest part of the lumbar spine—may become hypermobile to make up for it. Lack of thoracic spine mobility can also create an excessively mobile cervical spine which causes neck tension, tight jaw and headaches.

What can you do?

To help keep your cervical spine and lumbar spine pain free, you’ll want to move the thoracic spine in smart, safe ways to maintain strength and mobility and prevent it from recruiting extra help.

How do we do this?  We fine-tune our movement.  Taking small steps to break unconscious recruitment from other areas.  This involves strengthening the muscles in the thoracic area that have weakened due to poor posture; emphasizing thoracic spine engagement to work into extension from that area in yoga poses; identifying the way we sit, look at a computer screen, and set our jaw throughout the day.  And our yoga practice?  Exploring the ways our bodies take the path of least resistance to get us into the “typical expression of a yoga pose” that can lead to unhealthy yoga habits over time. Discovering small but important movement changes to work into the yoga pose that are specific to your body allowing longevity in your yoga practice.

Many of you join me every week for Yoga for a Healthy Spine where we often focus on the thoracic region.  This is always the class favorite.  As a result, I am offering an extended practice workshop on Thursday, March 9 from 6:00pm-7:30pm called Thoracic Spine Love.

What is the difference between the workshop and the weekly class?

Limited class size for this extended thoracic practice where we will stop and explore in detail, movements of the thoracic area to include opening and strengthening with non-yoga and yoga movements, tools to use to work into tight areas, and day-to-day body mechanics.

Haven’t attended my weekly class but interested?  All are welcome.

I hope you will join me.