Why You Should Care About Thoracic Spine Mobility
Bet you haven't thought much about this section of your spine. Here's what it is and how to keep it moving well.
If you've ever taken a fitness class that requires bending or twisting, chances are you've heard trainers laud the benefits "thoracic spine" or "T-spine" mobility. (Speaking of phrases trainers love, here's what to know about your posterior chain.)
Here, experts share where specifically the thoracic spine is, where it's located, why it needs to be mobile, and what you can do to make it more mobile—because, spoiler alert, you definitely need to.
What Is the Thoracic Spine?
From its name, you probably know that your thoracic spine is on located in your (drum roll please)... spine. Your spinal column has three sections (cervical, thoracic, and lumbar), and the thoracic spine is the middle section located in your upper back, starting at the base of the neck and extending down to the abdomen, explains Nichole Tipps, a sports medicine-certified personal trainer and lead trainer with V Shred.
The muscles attached to the vertebrae (via ligaments) in that region are called the 'spinalis' and the 'longissimus.' These are the primary muscles involved in helping you stand up straight, maintain proper posture when you're sitting, and—most importantly—protect your spinal column, explains Allen Conrad, D.C., C.S.C.S. a doctor of chiropractic at the Montgomery County Chiropractic Center in North Wales, PA.
Why Thoracic Spine Mobility Is So Important
When the thoracic spine is operating optimally, it allows you to move in basically all directions. "It's built for mobility and movement, bending and twisting. It's designed for flexion, extension, and rotation," explains Medhat Mikhael, M.D., a pain management specialist for Spine Health Center at Memorial Care Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California. It's what allows you to safely execute basically all the movements you use in everyday activities.
Trouble is, today's sedentary lifestyle lends itself to reduced thoracic spine mobility. "Like most things in the body, it's an 'if you don't use it you lose it' scenario," explains Dr. Mikhael. "A lack of thoracic spine mobility means that the lumbar spine, pelvis, shoulders and surrounding muscles all compensate to allow you to move how you want to move." Long term, those compensations can absolutely lead to injury. (See: Mobility Myths You Should Ignore)
If you're lacking thoracic spine mobility, the injury risk for the lumbar spine—the part of your spine in your low-back—is especially high. "The lumbar spine is meant to keep us stable and is not meant to move much at all," he says. "So when these joints that aren't meant to be mobile, are forced to be mobile, it places a ton of pressure on the discs in your lower back." The possible consequences: inflammation, degeneration, or herniation of the discs, generalized low-back pain, compression fractures, muscles spasms, and spinal nerve injuries. Yikes. (Curious if it's ever okay to have lower-back pain after a workout? Here a doctor tackles that Q).
The risks don't stop there. If your thoracic spine isn't mobile, anytime you have to do a movement overhead, your shoulders make up for that lack of mobility, explains Dr. Mikhael. "If you have shoulder impingement or chronic shoulder and neck problems it could actually be from a lack of mobility in the thoracic spine." (Related: The Best Upper Body Workout For People With Shoulder Pain).
Do You Have Poor Thoracic Spine Mobility?
At risk of sounding alarmist, if you work a desk 9-to-5, there's a very good chance your thoracic spine mobility could use improvement. But even if you don't, think about all that time you spend sitting, slumped over a screen, watching Netflix, or sitting in the car or train…exactly. (Here: 3 Exercise to Combat Desk Body)
Still skeptical? There are a few quick tests you can do. First, look at your side profile in the mirror: Is your upper back hunched forward? "When your thoracic spine mobility isn't good you compensate with your upper back, which changes your posture," explains Dr. Mikhael. (Related: 9 Yoga Poses to Open Your Shoulders).
Then, try the Thread the Needle test. (Yogis, this move should be familiar to you.) "This pose will show you what kind of tension you're holding in the rhomboids muscles, traps, shoulders, and T-spine," says Tipps.
- Start on your hands and knees.
- Keeping your left hand planted and hips square, reach your right arm underneath your body. Are you able to drop your right shoulder and temple to the ground? Stay here for five deep breaths.
- Un-thread your right hand and keeping your right arm straight and hips square, twist to the right, reaching right arm toward the ceiling. Are you able to make that arm perfectly perpendicular to the floor, or is it falling short?
Of course, if you have any of the injuries and/or painful issues Dr. Mikhael mentioned above, there's also a good chance thoracic spine immobility is part of what caused the issue initially. (If you haven't already, consider this your friendly reminder to consult a doctor, chiropractor, or physical therapist who can help you recover).
How to Improve Thoracic Spine Mobility
Yoga, pre- and post-workout stretching, and mobility workouts (like MobilityWod, Movement Vault, and RomWOD) are your best bet here, says Tipps: "Done on a consistent basis, these practices will improve your range of motion in that region." (Also try using a PVC pipe for mobility drills.)
And don't forget to foam roll. Lay on your stomach and put the foam roller along the lower portion of your chest (right above your boobs, along your pectoral muscles) and rock back and forth for two minutes, suggests Dr. Mikhael. Next, roll over onto your back with the foam roller positioned horizontally along the tops of your shoulder blades. Slowly allow your head, neck and upper back extend back as far as comfortable. "Don't rock, just lay backward and straighten your arms trying to touch your hands to the ground behind you," he says. Likely, you won't be able to touch your hands behind you the first time—or even the first 100 times!. "But do this combo several times a week for five to ten minutes and you'll notice your mobility improving," he says.
And because the thoracic muscles are key for rotational movements, Conrad suggests concentrating on stretches that help you increase flexibility and comfort with moving and rotating the upper back. His top three suggestions? Threading the needle, cat/camel, and just hanging from a pull-up bar in a neutral position.
For something easier to incorporate to your day-to-day, try this thoracic spine chair exercise: Sit on your chair with a flat back, engaged core, and put your hands behind your head like you're doing a sit-up, explains Dr. Mikhael. Then twist to side so right elbow lands on left armrest; right elbow pointing to the sky. Do 10 touches per side, three times a day.
Need even more convincing to improve your thoracic spine mobility? Well, "when you have good mobility in the thoracic spine you usually have more lung volume and are better able to open up your chest and breathe," says according to Dr. Mikhael. Yep, thoracic mobility boosters are also your quick fix to improved cardiovascular capacity.