The thoracic spine is comprised of the twelve vertebrae (back bones) of the middle segment of the spine.
Thoracic mobility is important for good posture, to prevent back and neck pain, improve shoulder range of motion and to enable overhead lifting and mobility. A stiff thoracic spine that is unable to extend, limits efficient shoulder blade movement, which then affects the mechanics and stability of the shoulder joint. Decreased thoracic mobility (stiffness) is one of the most common complaints we see as physiotherapists.
These 10 exercises will help improve your upper back range of motion, and thereby limit stiffness, poor posture and pain.
Foam roller- Thoracic extension
Sit your bottom on the ground, with the roller across your upper back (roughly at the level of your shoulder blades). Keeping your core engaged (to avoid extending the lower back) and support your neck, gently lean back over the roller. The roller acts as a fulcrum on the spine during this movement. When this force is applied to a stiff joint, it can help improve mobility. If you don’t feel any stiffness at a particular level of your spine during the movement, move the roller up or down to another segment. It is normal to have restrictions in some areas of the thoracic spine and not all. You can also lift your bottom off the floor and gently roll backwards to massage out the upper back.
Foam roller- side to side roll
Lie down along the length of a long foam roller. Extend your arms out to the side to feel a gentle stretch across your chest. You can then gently roll a few centimetres side to side to massage out the tight erector spinae muscles that run down the sides of your spine.
Child’s Pose Stretch
Start in a kneeling position. Sit your hips back on your heels and push your hands out in front of you. Let your chest drop down to the floor, whilst continuing to breathe in and out. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds.
If you have a stiff mid-back, this should bring out a good stretch in your spine. You may also feel a stretch on the sides of your torso, where your Latissimus Dorsi muscles run and attach to the underside of the arm (near the armpit). To increase the intensity of the stretch, place your hands on top of a foam roller. This will allow you to stretch further into thoracic spine extension.
In 4-point kneeling with your shoulders above your hands and hips over your knees. Imagine a piece of string lifting your upper back up towards the ceiling, while you breathe in and gently pull your chin in to chest. As you exhale, lift your neck and relax you spine downward, gentle arching your lower back and trying to extend your thoracic spine down between your shoulders. Repeat 10 times.
Bench thoracic spine
A great stretch for thoracic spine mobility and stretching the latisumus dorsi muscles. Similar to the child’s pose stretch above, kneel down and rest your elbows on a bench in front of you. Sit your hips back on your heels and simultaneously drop your chest towards the ground. You may feel a deeper stretch through your shoulders. Again hold your stretch for 30 seconds.
Kneeling downward rotation stretch
We can also work to improve thoracic mobility with rotational exercises. Start in an “All 4’s” kneeling position. Take your right hand and slide it on the ground across and under your left arm as far as possible. As you drop your right shoulder to the ground, you should feel a comfortable stretch across the back of the shoulder and into your mid back. Hold this stretch for 30 seconds.
To increase the intensity of the stretch, you can use the assistance of a resistance band. Set up in the same “All 4’s” position as you did before but a metre away from a resistance band attached to a table leg. Reach under your body and grab the band with the hand furthest away. There should be enough tension on the band so that when you attempt to rotate again, the resistance is assisting in creating more thoracic rotation.
You can also increase the ease of rotation by placing one hand on a foam roller to allow easy glide.
Kneeling upward rotation stretch
Start in 4 point kneeling. Place one hand behind your head and then gradually take that elbow up towards the ceiling, rotating through your thoracic spine.
Assisted Thoracic rotation and side bend
The next progression for rotational mobility starts in a seated position with a pole (or broom stick) across your upper back.
Start by rotating as far as you can to the right. When you hit your end range, perform a small side bend (left or right). This will be a small motion as too much side bend will cause your hips to rise from the seated position and your low back to move. This motion should bring out a good stretch in your mid-back and possibly to muscles on the sides of your torso as well. Hold your stretch for 30 seconds and repeat on the other side.
Tight chest muscles can pull your shoulders forward leading to rounded shoulders and poor posture. To stretch out the pectoral muscles, stand with one arm in a doorway. Turn your body away from your arm to feel the stretch across the chest. Hold your stretch for 30 seconds.
Spine rotation stretch
This is a great stretch for the deep quadratus lumborum muscle as well as the thoracic spine. You may feel a glute stretch too.
Lie on your back and pull one knee across your body, rotating at the pelvis. With the other arm, reach in the opposite direction so the spine is rotating to get an effective stretch. Hold your stretch for 30 seconds.
If you are experiencing back or neck pain or are concerned by your limited mobility or poor posture, chat to your physiotherapist about what more you can do to improve your thoracic mobility at home. We’re always here to assist. Physiotherapy treatment can help with joint mobilisation as can massage and dry needling assist with releasing muscle tension. https://www.portmelbournephysio.com.au/physiotherapy/
Clinical exercise can also assist with strengthening up postural muscles and working on flexibility and joint mobility. https://www.portmelbournephysio.com.au/clinical-pilates/