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The Middle Makes a Difference

Keeping your thoracic spine supple

By Stacy Hennis, PT, C/NDT

When you have a headache, having your neck rubbed can help. When your low back hurts, stretching your hips often makes it feel better. But what about the area between your low back and neck? This area is referred to as the thoracic spine and is often overlooked. Yet it’s a critical link between your neck and shoulders and lower trunk.

The neck provides flexibility for turning your head and engaging in the environment. The lower back is designed for flexibility and power: flexibility when reaching for the floor, power when lifting items. The ribs attach to the thoracic spine (T1-T10) and form the thorax, protecting the heart and lungs. It’s a solid base on which the head and shoulders can move.

The thoracic spine is stable, yet highly mobile. It bends forward, backward, and rotates. Without supple mobility in this area, you can develop seemingly unrelated problems: your neck may start bothering you, or a shoulder injury may begin. It can lead to rounding of your upper back and a forward positioned head.

Often people are unaware of how to move or exercise this area properly. If they try to extend, they arch their lower back too much. Or with twisting, they only twist their neck and lower back. If people learn the proper movement in the right area, it can save them a lot of heartache in the future.

It’s important to first determine your mobility. To see if you have enough thoracic extension, lay on the floor with your knees bent, feet on floor. Straighten your elbows out to the side and move your arms overhead palms facing up. If you’re hands don’t touch the floor without arching your back, you don’t have enough thoracic mobility.

If this is the case, a foam roller is a great way to gain more extension. Lay with it on your thoracic spine (not neck or low back), lift your hips in the air and gently move up and down on it, rolling along the thoracic spine. You can then start to curl over the roller, extending your spine further. To increase the stretch on the front of your chest, straighten your arms out to the side.

Rotation is critical as well. Sit in a chair, hug your chest, and rotate side to side. Don’t let yourself move excessively from the lumbar spine, but instead rotate in the thoracic area. Another way to do this is lying on your side with legs bent for balance and comfort. Pull in your abdominals to help your low back remain stable. Straighten your arms out in front of you. Rotate in your thoracic spine and chest to move your upper arm towards the ceiling then back towards the floor behind you. Repeat for several repetitions on both sides.

You should never feel pain in your neck or low back. If you do, you may have flexibility or muscle imbalance issues that can be appropriately assessed by a physical therapist. Prior to starting any exercise program, it is important to consult with your health care professional.

Stacy Hennis is the owner of New Beginning Physical Therapy, Inc., an in-home therapy company. She has a Masters degree in Physical Therapy, as well as advanced certifications in treating adults with stroke, brain injuries and Parkinson’s. Stacy can be reached at (760) 218.9961 or online at NewBeginningPT.com.

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