Updated: Nov 17, 2021
Thoracic spine (mid back) mobility often reduces as we age, but is also regularly compromised by day to day habits such as sitting for long hours at a desk or working in a forward flexed position.
Unfortunately, when we lose movement from one area, we naturally try and take it from another. In this case, generally speaking if we have lost thoracic rotation of the spine, we have a tendency to "take it" from the shoulders. The dysfunctional movement patterns adopted as a result, often leads to people experiencing pain, and discomfort in the neck and shoulders and occasionally, referred pain in to the arms.
How Can We help Ourselves?
Exercises that not only open up the chest and stretch out our pectorals, but that also help to release the quadratus lumborum (QL- the lower back muscles), will help to improve rotation and mobility of the thoracic spine, and keep us feeling more agile and less tight.
The following pilates inspired mobility exercises are excellent for freeing up tight muscles surrounding the ribcage and trunk, in turn allowing a greater range of movement and control and the shoulder joints.
Threading the Needle Exercise
This exercise is excellent for encouraging rotation of the T spine while in a quadruped position; maintaining a level pelvis while the torso is encouraged to rotate.
Why is this important?
Because it: (1) reduces intervertebral disc pressure (2) alleviates pain between our shoulder blades (3) and reduces the sagging of our lower back in sitting
Threading the needle requires a degree of core control as well, so you have the added bonus of a core workout at the same time.
Tips for Performing Threading the Needle
Start in a quadruped position ensuring your hands and directly beneath your shoulders and knees directly beneath hips
Breathe in through your nose for 3 counts, hold the breath for 3 counts and breathe out through your mouth for 6 counts as you apply the ABC principle A – navel to spine B – head up through 7th cervical vertebra C – shoulder blades down towards the pelvis. Now rotate your ribcage and head by threading your right arm under the midline of your torso.
Breathe naturally in and out through your nose for 3 counts, then rotate your ribcage, head and right arm away from the midline of your torso towards the ceiling.
Repeat the whole procedure 8 times on each side.
POINTS TO FOCUS ON:
Maintain the elongation during the movement pattern.
Think about moving your arm and torso as one unit
As you "de-thread" try to lift your torso and arm up, but avoid placing extra weight on your supporting arm
Try to keep your weight off your supporting wrist; rather draw the shoulder blade down the ribcage shoulder joint and distribute weight evenly between your knees, the shoulder girdles and lateral sides of your ribcage.
Correct Standing Posture
By practicing correct posture and engaging in exercises to strengthen the back and neck, and between the shoulder blades, you can lighten the load, giving your T spine a break.
In correct anatomical posture, the head should be directly over the body, creating a straight line from your ear lobe, to the head of the humerus (the lateral aspect of the shoulder), down past the rim of the pelvis, past the outside of the knee and to the ankle bone.
A really useful assessment tool and exercise to practice in correcting your posture is the Standing Wall Angel.
The Standing Wall Angel
This is useful to gain mobility through the shoulders. Attempt the arm slide up the wall, while maintaining thoracic control and shoulder extension.
Back against a wall
Feet hip width apart
Heels approximately 2 inches away from wall
Feel bottom, some of the lower back and as much of thoracic (mid) spine against wall as possible
Depress shoulders (shrug and lower them)
Tuck chin in so head is against the wall
Take a breath in and out, focussing on breathing with the diaphragm* (place a hand on your stomach while breathing - if diaphragm breathing, your stomach should go in and out, rather than your chest)
Now bring your arms up to the side (abduct) to 90 degrees, and bend at the elbows. Try and maintain the contact of the thoracic spine with the wall as you bring the arms into flexion and abduction. Attempt to place the wrists and thumbs of both hands against the wall. Whilst maintaining this posture and with controlled diaphragm breathing; bend the knees to approximately 40 degrees, then come back to standing.
Frequency: 3 Sets; 10 Reps Daily
NB: If it is not possible to keep the thoracic spine against the wall, and/or cannot reach the wall with the wrists and thumbs, at a standing position, first aim to improve shoulder mobility and lumbar control by sliding arms up the wall above the head and back to shoulder height again.
* Diaphragm breathing is an essential skill to practice as correct respiration is arguably the most important of all movement patterns. Insufficient activity of the abdominal muscles results in a loss of diaphragmatic support for the spinal column. This can in turn negatively affect the stability of the lumbar spine during lifting or bending activities.