Working as physiotherapists in private practice, we deal with a large and varied amount of musculoskeletal complaints. Some of the most common of these complaints we treat include low back, neck and shoulder pain, and one recurrent thread we see with these injuries is their direct connection to the thoracic spine. The thoracic spine, if you haven’t heard of it before, is the middle aspect of your spine, sitting between the neck (cervical spine) and low back (lumbar spine). It consists of twelve vertebrae, and as well as the neck and low back, it also articulates with the ribcage and indirectly with the scapula. It is designed to be a highly mobile part of our bodies and moves through three planes of movement; flexion/extension, rotation and lateral flexion.
The thoracic spine has become a hot topic in the exercise world recently, and with good reason. With modern life, our jobs have become more desk-bound, our screen-time grown longer and longer, and as a result our thoracic spines have become stiffer and stiffer. This becomes a problem, not just because it’s quite uncomfortable to have a stiff mid-back, but also because it alters how we move our necks, backs and shoulders (often to the point of injury), as well as adversely effecting how well we can breathe. On top of all of that, the stiffer and more hunch-backed we become, the more we start to look like a relative of Quasimodo’s!
With all of this in mind, the thoracic spine is clearly an integral part of our bodies to keep healthy, thus we can and should make some simple changes to our lives that will begin to change how we move our mid-back. The following are my 5 go-to exercises to help increase thoracic mobility:
Thoracic Spine foam rolling and extensions
I always like to kick-start my own thoracic mobility routine with the help of my trusty foam roller. By lying with your roller underneath you, perpendicular to your spine, you are in the perfect position to begin mobilizing and releasing your spine and the surrounding musculature. By gently rolling your spine up and down the roller, being careful not to stray into your neck or lower back, you will feel your spine begin to free up. You can also gently arch your back over the roller to encourage extension of your thoracic.
The book stretch is a perfect starting point to work on your thoracic rotation. Lying on your side with knees bent, arms stretched out in front of your face, open up your top arm, like the cover of a book opening, lowering it down to the opposite side of your body, keeping your two knees pinned down together.
Happy Cat/Angry Cat Stretch
One of my favourite spinal stretches, the aptly named feline stretch is a great way of working on spinal mobility through a flexion/extension pattern, all the while feeling great. Start off on all fours. Focusing on keeping your hands under your shoulders, your knees under your hips and aim to move your spine segmentally feeling your vertebrae open on your angry cat, and glide back together smoothly on your happy cat.
Thread the needle
A nice progression from your cat stretch; once again starting in your four point kneeling position, then sitting back towards your heels to stop your lower back from moving. Reaching one hand out in front of you, reach your other hand long underneath your armpit. Then slowly draw your arm out from under the armpit and reach it towards the sky, following your hand with your eye line.
JUST TAKE A FEW DEEP BREATHS!
Okay, I’ll admit it, this one isn’t really an “exercise”, per say, but is equally, if not more so important than the 4 previous drills. With the thoracic spine’s integral role in breathing and rib-cage function, a stiff thoracic spine can cause you to breathe poorly. Likewise, shallow breathing can cause your thoracic to stiffen up, so, as you can see, we’re starting to get into a vicious cycle the minute we let either of these things happen. By breathing deeply, we allow our ribcage to fully move, out thoracic spine to stretch, plus we better oxygenate our bodies.
I implore you to breathe deeply into these stretches and exercises as a way to supercharge their effectiveness, and, with diligence, in no time you’ll have gone from Quasimodo to contortionist!
Should you have any questions about thoracic mobility and breathing exercises, or if you want to know how to progress your mobility regime, please don’t hesitate to have a chat with your Physio or Pilates instructor, we’re always be more than happy to talk.