“Moving Isn’t important, until you can’t - Gray Cook (PT, S&C, OCS)
Article Quick Glimpse
The thoracic spine is the vertebral section of your upper back and it should move quite far forwards and backwards (about 35 degrees and 25 degrees respectively)
The impact of thoracic movement on posturing is that sustained postures change your movement capacities and can reduce the degrees you’re able to move in this area
The impact of thoracic movement on shoulder mobility and physical activities - Thoracic movement is directly related to shoulder mobility with various shoulder issues being influenced by poor thoracic range of motion.
How can I improve my thoracic mobility? You can improve this by being conscious of your flexibility and posturing (click here to learn how to sit properly with correct posture).
Prior to exercising in the gym, the Prone Dowel Press Exercise can help optimise thoracic movement with is vital for pushing, pulling and overhead movements.
What is the Thoracic Spine and How Should it Move?
The thoracic spine is inherently stable. This is because anatomically, this region of our spine is the origin of our ribs and thorax. The thorax is designed to protect our heart and lungs. It creates a bony cage-like structure to accomplish this (see Figure 1). Due to its stability it makes a stable base for our back muscles and the shoulder girdle.
Figure 1: Thoracic Spine (highlighted) and Thorax Region
We have 12 pairs of ribs, each of which begin at their corresponding thoracic vertebrae (coloured in Figure 1) from the superior and inferior costal facet joints (see Figure 2).
The first 7 pairs of ribs wrap around anterior and directly attached to the sternum.
The costal cartilages of ribs 8 to 10 indirectly attach to the sternum through the cartilage of the above rib.
The 11th and 12th pair of ribs are floating ribs
Figure 2: Thoracic Vertebrae Anatomy
Just because our thoracic spine region is designed for stability, this does not mean we should not be able to move it. In fact, we rely on our ability to move through our thoracic spine for everyday movements and upright posturing.
We should be getting roughly 35 degrees flexion (bending forward) and 25 degrees extension (bending backward) through this region. Also, as each thoracic vertebrae are designed to rotate approximately 3 degrees on top of one another we should be able to get 35 degrees of rotation (turning) on each side.
If we lack range of motion in this area we are more likely to perform compensatory movements in our lumbar region (lower back) or cervical regional (neck). It's important to understand how lack of movement through our thoracic spine can cause tightness or pain in this area and also hinder other movement strategies we have.
The Effect of Thoracic Movement on Posturing
If we are slumped over a desk all day, many of us, overtime adopt a thoracic flexion posture (kyphosis) and hunch over. This is usually accompanied by rounded and protracted shoulders along with a forward head position. By maintaining this posture over an extended period of time it may cause pain or discomfort in our back, neck or shoulders.
This can also lead to long-term soft tissue changes in muscle length, ligaments and tendons creating more permanent physiological alterations.
When in a flexed position, the discs in our spine are compressed. This is because they are located on the front of each vertebrae (see Figure 3). This is a NORMAL thing to happen in our bodies as our vertebral discs are designed to take the load in this position. However, if we sustain this posture (or other postures) for lengthy periods of time it can alter the alignment of these vertebral joints and may cause some discomfort. If we can avoid these sustained flexion postures through movement, along with mobility exercises to improve and maintain our thoracic range of motion we are far less likely to feel stiff and sore after a day’s work in the office.
Figure 3: Demonstration of what happens to the vertebral disc in flexion.
On the other hand, if we maintain this flexion posturing through our mid back (thoracic spine) we may lose some of our extension range. This can alter other functional movements and result in the use of compensatory strategies.
The Impact of Thoracic Movement on Shoulder Mobility and Physical Activities
Thoracic mobility and shoulder mobility go hand in hand with one another. The mobility of our thoracic region is especially important for exercises above our head. These may include shoulder presses to lifting something from the top shelf in the kitchen.
If we have a rigid thoracic spine it can alter how our shoulder blade (scapula) is positioned on the back of our rib-cage and hinder our shoulder mobility with overhead movements. Our scapula lays on the back of our rib cage. This forms a joint known as the scapulo-thoracic joint. It rotates upward and outward as we lift overhead and creates a foundation for the rest of the shoulder move from.
This joint along with the gleno-humeral joint, acromioclavicular joint (AC joint) and sternoclavicular joint are what make up our shoulder girdle (See Figure 4). All of these joints must work together in a synchronised fashion for optimal overhead movements. Therefore, to achieve this we need to have sufficient thoracic mobility (particularly extension) to ensure that the scapula can position itself correctly and provide a stable platform for the rest of the arm as it moves.
Figure 4: Diagram of Each of the Joints Associated with the Shoulder Girdle
By reducing thoracic mobility, either through poor sustained posturing or neglecting to work on thoracic mobility in training we move disadvantage our shoulder girdle movements. This is the equivalent of starting in 7th or 8th position, before you have even got off the starting line. If we can optimise our thoracic mobility we put ourselves in pole position to be strong and mobile overhead.
Who doesn’t want to give themselves the best advantage possible, whether it’s in the gym, the office or the work site.
So, How Can I Improve my Thoracic Mobility?
To reduce stiffness and improve range of the thoracic spine we do it in the same way we achieve this in different areas of the body by:
Moving through full range of motion
Stretching the associated soft and connective tissues
How to increase thoracic rotation
Below are two exercises that are great for improving thoracic rotation:
1. Prone Dowel Press Exercise