Did you know you there are more than 70 joints in this area we call the thoracic spine?
Yes, there are 12 vertebrae in your thoracic spine, but each single vertebrae has multiple joints associated with it.
There are joints from thoracic vertebrae to thoracic vertebrae and also joints from rib to vertebrae.
That means many areas for motion to come from, but that also means a lot places for stiffness. Stiffness and limitations in ranges of motion are the more common problem that people face in the thoracic spine, especially as you age.
If you are reading this, then chances are you may be dealing with the problem mentioned above, and you may also be wondering - “how can I decrease the stiffness in this area.”
By the end of this blog, my goal is that you will have gained some solutions and actionable steps to find relief and improved range of motion in your thoracic spine.
The design of the thoracic spine is to act as a protective shield for our internal organs, but it is actually made to be a mobile segment, as we will explain below.
The thoracic spine has an important role in not just protecting our organs, but in playing a vital part in the functionality of our scapula (shoulder blade), shoulder, neck, and lumbar spine. That is where people typically experience their symptoms. They think that it is a “shoulder problem” but it really is a thoracic spine MOBILITY problem, they think it is a “neck problem” but it really is a upper thoracic spine MOBILITY problem, or they think it is a “lower back problem in the golf swing” but it really is a thoracic spine MOBILITY problem.
Does that make sense?
Maybe the questions below might make it easier for you to relate to….
The problem is not so much the limited range of motion and stiffness, but it is what that stiffness and range of motion limitations are keeping you from doing. Let us put it this way…
Do you feel limited in the backswing of your golf swing?
Do you have difficulty reaching above your head?
Do you have difficulty performing overhead presses, snatches, or pull-ups in the gym?
Maybe you’re feeling pain elsewhere and having a different set of problems than the ones mentioned above….
Difficulty turning your head while driving the car?
Difficulty keeping your head still in the golf swing.
Suffering from lower back pain and stiffness when walking, sitting for long periods of time, sleeping, playing golf, squatting, riding your bike, or swimming.
Having shoulder pain or neck pain that does not seem to go away - even after trying medications, injections, and even rehab elsewhere.
All of these problems can be caused by a tight and stiff thoracic spine.
Why you may ask….
We like to use this diagram when explaining it. It is called the stability/mobility relationship. It explains the major segments in our body are arranged in a pattern of stability, mobility, stability, mobility, etc.
Whenever the thoracic spine begins to get stiff, it can cause dysfunction and excessive strain elsewhere (lumbar spine, shoulder, cervical spine). Therefore, performing routine mobility exercises for this area can help prevent dysfunction/injury and also improve performance in sport..
Example: This is notably important in the golf game. Having 45 degrees of thoracic rotation ensures that you will have sufficient thoracic rotation to get into the desired backswing position. This also helps you create elastic energy and torque at the top of your golf swing…. all just waiting to be unleashed on the golf ball. Unlocking your T-spine with the strategies below will help you get that range, which will…
Limit stress on your lower back
Optimize shoulder function
Improve neck mobility
Decrease back stiffness
“So, what can I do get more mobility here?
Mobility exercises are not just laying on a foam roll and bending backwards. We like to use active strategies with our clients, in addition to manual techniques to get improvements in thoracic spine mobility. Some things we like to focus on are listed below.
Active mobility exercises
Active mobility exercises are key because we are active beings. We need to be able to not only optimize range but be able to control that “new range.” We also need to incorporate breathing in these exercises…. every exercise. These exercises in particular because the ribs can limit motion as well. In using inhaling and exhaling, we can improve rib and thoracic cage expansion, thus improving thoracic spine mobility and also performance.
Here are 4 exercises that we believe will help “Unleash your T-spine.”
THREE WAY THORACIC ROTATION
Sit back as far as you can towards your heels. (this helps to “lock” your lumbar spine").
Don’t rush through the exercise, breathe through it, specifically breathing out as your rotate up.
Do both sides with all three variations (unless you have shoulder restrictions).
6-10 reps in each position.
2. HALF KNEELING THORACIC ROTATION WITH BREATHING
Make sure to pick a point in the room to track progress.
Rotate as far as you can, side bend to one side and take 3 breathes fully exhaling.
Stay rotated and then bend the other way, performing 3 more breathes.
Keep the same leg up, turn the opposite way, and repeat that sequence.
Then switch legs and perform again.
TIP: Keep front knee in the same position, do not let it fall or cross midline.
3. PRAYER LAT STRETCH
Keep elbows at 90 degrees.
Start with shoulder, elbows, and hands in a straight line.
Rock your hips back towards your feet as you exhale.
For lat stretch - hold 20 seconds. For just targeting thoracic extension - perform 10-15 reps to end range with 2-3 second hold.
Make sure to keep your core engaged throughout the exercise to limit lumbar extension.
Return to starting position slowly, and you may spread hands out slight apart from each other for greater stretch.
4. SPLIT STANCE SINGLE ARM ROW
Keep core engaged throughout, and keep spine as neutral as possible. Careful not to get lumbar extension.
Try to keep hips pointed forward.
Start out with doing this exercise slow and controlled. Focus on the end range of motion and getting the most out of every rep.
Exhale at the end of the rep and focus on squeeze the lat.
Keep head pointed at the band origin.
Perform 8-10 reps with each arm with the right leg in front, and then switch to the left leg in front.
Give these exercises a shot, and remember that when it comes to making noticeable changes and lasting changes in mobility and flexibility, it takes consistency!
If you're someone who is always dealing with stiffness, tightness, back discomfort, or moving freely on the golf course, then we suggest giving us a call for a free strategy session so we can figure out what steps you need to take in order to feel your best!
Ask us about our Alliance Rx Method Co-Evaluation