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Posted by on Feb 20, 2015

Ask the PT: Releasing the Thoracic Upper Back

Ask the PT: Releasing the Thoracic Upper Back

Have you ever noticed someone’s posture with a “hump” in the upper back and thought to yourself ‘I hope that never happens to me!’ Do you ever find yourself sitting or standing with your own spine slumped and shoulders rounded forward? How about the experience of a nagging neck or low back pain, or maybe even difficulty turning to look over your shoulder?

If you answered yes, it’s likely that you have either observed in someone or experienced in yourself restricted motion of the thoracic spine.

Our spine consists of four curves whose varying shapes balance the function of our spring-loaded musculoskeletal system, those of mobility and stability. Most people are familiar with the primary concave curves (think cow pose) found in the cervical and lumbar spine perhaps because these are common sites of injury or dysfunction. Less well known are the secondary convex curves (think cat pose) of the spine, the thoracic spine and sacrum. The design of alternating spinal curves helps provide a natural shock absorption system that assists in maintaining balance with movement.

The thoracic spine is composed of twelve individual vertebrae and is connected to the front body and sternum (breastbone) by way of the ribs. If you can visualize this, you’ll notice how these structures create a ring of dynamic mobility to accommodate the constant movement required of breathing and our respiratory system. The thoracic spine has the potential for a great deal of mobility including flexion (bending forward), extension (bend backward) and rotation (twisting) of the spine. These are the motions the thoracic spine is designed to perform.

Most people, however do not know where their thoracic spine is, let alone what it does. And without being able to feel and visualize its location and movement, we use it less and even forget about in our bodies. As a result the breath may become shallow or posture compromised. Over time and disuse, we start to lose movement in the thoracic spine and attempt instead to achieve movement through neighboring parts of our body that are not as well designed to do them.

An example of this can be seen at the lumbar spine and sacrum whose design lends itself first and foremost to stability, whereas the thoracic spine’s design lends itself to mobility. If we look at a yoga posture like seated spinal twist, many people will first attempt to twist or rotate from the lumbar and sacral regions of the spine instead of initiating the twist from their lower thoracic spine. With repetition and over time, the lumbar and sacral region is compromised in its ability to provide stabilization and dysfunction can ensue. Meanwhile, the underused thoracic spine becomes stiffened and weak from decreased use and the likelihood of being able to move this region for regular daily activities or more specialized movements becomes diminished.

A second example is the common forward head and shoulder postures that we fall into while sitting at a desk/computer/Smartphone (text neck) or at home on the couch reading. As the head and shoulders draw forward into their familiar patterns, the upper back and muscles around the neck, shoulders and scapula can become overstretched and weak from decreased use. Frequent changes in position (every 20-30 minutes) and remembering to draw the shoulder blades down the back can release tension in the neck and shoulders and allow for ease of mobility at the neck and shoulders, as well as reduce any extra effort and tension associated with breathing.

Release tension and find freedom of movement in the thoracic spine, neck and shoulders for yourself with these simple movements and look for weekly yoga classes with Alison and and an upcoming March workshop that will explore further into these topics with Meagen.

  • Sit on the edge of a seat and reach your hands back to take hold of its edges, inhale and exhale 5 breaths as you keep the breastbone lifted, shoulder blades down and upper arms rolling back, trying not to flare the bottom ribs forward
  • Roll 1-2 towels or yoga blankets and lie down over them at about the level of the bottom edges of your shoulder blades. Use support for your head and neck and take your arms out to the sides, supported at a comfortable height.
  • Sit to one side of a chair (without armrests) with feet grounded firmly. Reach your arms straight overhead and from your lower thoracic spine, twist in the direction of the chair back. Lower your hands to the back of the chair and use them to gently deepen the twist. Breathe 10 rounds of inhale/exhale, reverse the twist and switch sides of the chair to repeat.