Steph’s back keeps hurting. She lifts something into the overhead cupboard, and wham, her neck is sore. She twists around to grab something in the back seat of the car and shazam, her lower back is in spasm. Then, she reaches her arm back to put on a coat, and she tweaks her shoulder. Really?? Stephanie keeps going to the chiropractor, but one wrong move and she’s in pain again.
Here’s the problem: it’s neither her neck or her lower back or even her shoulder that’s really the issue. Yes, she could and should get stronger- do Pilates, or even go to the gym. Sure, that would help, but it won’t really address the whole problem. The real problem is her thoracic spine. She hardly notices it, but thoracic stiffness is wreaking havoc on lots of other body parts.
Of all the spinal segments, those with ribs attached are inherently the stiffest. But they can get even more rigid if we pay no attention to them, like when we’re hunched over a computer, or slouching on the couch, or if we walk with no arm swing. “But, the rib cage rarely hurts, you say, so who cares?”
If the rib cage is stiff, all the other body parts are affected. See the difference in the video below:You can see that you can’t get the same motion in the neck with poor posture and this can cause neck strain. Same with the shoulder, which is why reaching into the back seat without having a supple thoracic spine can lead to shoulder strain. Just try it for yourself and notice the difference in motion and feel.
When you bend, each part of the spine contributes to the motion. If one area is particularly stiff, then all the movement has to happen in just a few segments, rather than across many. Think about pulling a stiff theraband connected to a more stretchy theraband – if you pull the 2 ends apart, where does the motion come from?
The lighter resistance in the yellow band stretched nearly twice as much as the heavier blue resistance. If you want to decrease stress on the lower back, making sure the mid back contributes to the movement goes a long way to decrease lower back strain.
So how can we increase thoracic spine motion? Start by working on rotation, since that is the movement the thoracic spine does most easily. When walking, just bend your elbows and start swinging your arms to increase thoracic rotation. To further increase thoracic spine rotation, here are two more moves that will help.
Take a rotation break at work:
Reach across your body and grab the seat or arm of your chair and reach back with the other to each side to stretch. A minute is all you need in each direction.
Active Thoracic Rotation in Quadruped:
- Start on your hands and knees, with one elbow between your knees, and the other hand behind your head. This will round your spine and help decrease the amount of rotation in the lumbar spine.
- Push through the grounded elbow, and reach your other elbow up toward the ceiling, your thoracic spine will begin to extend and rotate. This position also requires your spinal rotation muscles to do the work, strengthening while you stretch.
- Perform 10 reps on each side. If one side feels more difficult, throw in an extra 10 reps on that side to help even out the overall mobility.
Even though the thoracic spine is largely ignored in everyday activities, mobility there can make all the difference in eliminating lower back pain, neck pain and shoulder pain. Give it a go. And if you still struggle with neck pain, back pain or shoulder pain, give us a call.