Do a quick scan of your posture. Are you hunched over a computer reading this? Are your shoulders rounded? Is your neck held forward in a ‘texting neck’ position? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you’re probably lacking mobility in your thoracic spine. This will set you up for injuries and pain. You’ll also end up moving around with the grace of the Hunchback of Notre Dame.
To understand why thoracic mobility is important, we need a quick overview of the spinal column segments and their functions. Let’s take a look.
Segments of Your Spine
We tend to think of the spine as one uniform column. But it’s actually made up of five segments with different functions and ranges of motion:
- The cervical spine extends up the neck to the base of the skull.
- The thoracic spine extends over the shoulder and chest area.
- The lumbar spine extends over the lower back area.
- The sacral extends down from the lumbar spine in the pelvic area.
- The coccyx is the very bottom of the spine (i.e., the tailbone).
The two segments we’ll focus on are the thoracic and lumbar spine. These are the main areas we think of as the ‘back’.
Function of the Thoracic Spine
The thoracic spine is highly mobile. It’s designed to flex and extend (forward and backward bending) as well as rotating and bending to the side. Think about being hunched over in front of a computer—that’s your thoracic spine flexing forward.
Function of the Lumbar Spine
The lumbar spine is designed for stability. It’s meant to support the weight of the body as well as added weight like a barbell when squatting. The lumbar spine can be thought of as a stone column. It transfers force from the hips as well as the upper back and arms. It’s supposed to resist excessive rotation and twisting.
Why Thoracic Spine Mobility Is Important
If your thoracic spine lacks mobility, guess what compensates? Yep, your lumbar spine. When a stable joint takes over the role of a mobile joint, pain and injuries are quick to follow. Let’s look at some common examples.
Most of us spend a lot of time in front of computers, phones, or tablets. This has led to ‘office posture’ or hunched over shoulders and rounded upper back. Because the body is a linked system, when your thoracic spine is hunched over all day, it can cause your pelvis to tilt. When your pelvis tilts, it causes your lumbar spine to flex (which it’s not designed to do). We then end up suffering from lower back pain.
When your thoracic spine is tight, your shoulders will also lose some of their range of motion. This makes it difficult to raise your arms up overhead and can set you up for rotator cuff injuries. It can also lead to head and neck pain.
If You Don’t Use It, You Lose It
If you don’t use a range of motion in a joint you lose it. Here’s a test you can try to illustrate this point. Sit in a chair and slouch forward with bad posture. Create a hunched over back and try to raise both arms towards the ceiling. Now, sit up straight with good posture and raise both arms toward the ceiling again. You’ll notice a much greater range of motion when you’re sitting up straight.
When your thoracic spine is immobile, your permanent position becomes hunched over. You can’t even do something as simple as raising your arms overhead! You don’t want to be stuck in that position.
Test Your Thoracic Spine Mobility
Here are some quick tests you can do to check your thoracic spine mobility.
Thoracic Extension Test
Thoracic Rotation Test
Part 2 - How to Improve Thoracic Spine Mobility
Check out Part 2 of this post for a list of exercises to improve thoracic spine mobility.
Don’t just consume information. If you’ve read this far, I’m assuming you find this post useful. You’ve now got two choices: 1) close the screen and think ‘that’s nice’ and move on with your day. Or 2) for the next week, do something for yourself (it can be anything) for five minutes every day. What’s the point of this? It’ll help you carve out time so that when I give you the mobility exercises, you’ve already built the habit of doing something every day. Don’t overcomplicate it. Pick something easy. And as Nike says, just do it! Decision creates action. Action creates results.
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You can also share some love by adding a comment below. Let me know if you have back or neck pain and what your go-to exercises are.
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