Thoracic Mobility: How It Can Improve Lower Back and Neck Pain

by Eric Bostrom February 23, 2021 5 min read

Thoracic Mobility: How It Can Improve Lower Back and Neck Pain

The thoracic spine. Some of you may not know the terminology, but you know what I’m talking about. In layman’s terms, it’s the upper back.

But really, that’s not entirely correct. Technically speaking, the thoracic spine is the middle of your back, spanning your T1-T12 vertebrae, but we’ll just call it your upper back for the purposes of this post. 

Specifics aside, we’re dedicating an entire post to thoracic spine mobility because it’s an often overlooked part of your body.  Thankfully, mainstream personalities like Tim Ferriss are beginning to champion the importance of thoracic mobility. 

But why? Very few people complain of disabling upper back pain, especially in comparison to lower back and neck pain. 

Simply put, a stiff upper and mid-back may lead to the source of your pain, which is what we are all about at Backmate. Having limited shoulder flexion indicates a rigid and tight upper body, leading to pain and soreness in your shoulder, back, neck, and even your hip. Moreover, the thoracic spine can affect the digestive tract, yet another reason for it to be on your radar for whole-body wellness.

Making things worse is the fact most of us do something that’s a thoracic spine killer: we sit at desks all day. As we know, sitting in a chair leads to poor posture (try a standing desk, everyone!), and poor posture leads to reduced thoracic mobility.

We don’t notice this very quickly because the body is excellent at compensating for shortcomings with other joints. Then, suddenly, lifting your arms over your head is hard or painful, and over time your hips start to hurt, too. 

I’ll highlight two simple exercises to try to keep your thoracic spine limber and mobile – that’s right, just TWO. As an added bonus, these exercises can be performed with little or no equipment. 

However, before we go further, I need to stress that these exercises are meant for thoracic spine mobility, NOT the lumbar spine (lower back) or neck. Don’t worry, though – follow the proper technique, and you’ll be fine. 

Before we begin, I have a confession. The two exercises below aren’t exercises at all. The more accurate description would be concepts.

Thoracic mobility is simply following the concepts of maximizing extension and rotation. Those two basic movements are what I’ll focus on below, knowing there are several more exercises and variations you could add to the list.  

With that, let’s begin.

Thoracic Extensions

The first thing we need to do is correct for the slouch and the slump often associated with bad posture and sitting at desk jobs all day. We do this with extension exercises. The Backmatepositioned on the floor works great for this, but you can also use a foam roller or even tennis balls. 

Imagine doing an ab crunch, and this will make perfect sense. Place your Backmate, roller, or balls on the floor. Position them at your mid-upper spine, we are going to lie back with bent knees and hands supporting our head as if we are going to be doing an ab crunch.

thoracic exercises by Backmate

The crucial thing to remember is to keep your abs and core engaged, so your rib cage does not flare-up.

Now begin doing slow stretches (see image below) to allow your body weight to arch your thoracic spine only. Keep your head supported with your arms and lower back from arching by keeping your abs tight. 

We suggest doing six to eight slow extensions and contractions and then moving three inches higher or lower along the thoracic spine by simply shuffling your bottom closer or farther away. Again, be sure to avoid the lower back and neck regions. Ultimately, the goal is to do 3-4 stretches like this within the T-1 and T-12 vertebrae. 

If you're averse to getting on the floor to do this exercise, I recommend using The Backmate in a standing position to do a deep tissue massage in the upper back area.

Regularly massaging the muscles, connective tissues, tendons, ligaments, and joints, can improve your flexibility and range of motion as well, and promotes soft tissue health and circulation. 

Rotations 

Achieving full thoracic mobility means being flexible throughout your entire range of motion. Thoracic rotations are great exercises that also help with your ability to extend as well.

You may take it for granted, but thoracic rotations are so common in our daily lives and our favorite sports – take golf, for example. There are a few different rotation exercises you can do, but here are some of my favorites.

Thoracic Mobility: How It Can Improve Lower Back and Neck Pain
  • Side-lying rotations: Lying on your side, bend your top knee 90-degrees (bottom leg can be straight) and rest it on a foam roller. With your top hand, make a rainbow motion along the floor, up and over your head. The goal is to have your arm resting on the opposite side of the floor. Move slowly and repeat this motion 6 to 8 times, then switch sides. Remember to breathe. 
  • Quadruped rotations: The starting position here is on your hands and knees, hips just above your knees or slightly behind, hands underneath your shoulders. Be sure to engage your core and “lockout” your lumbar spine so we can focus on the thoracic spine. From here, raise a hand as high as you can. Alternatively, you can put your hand on the back of your head and do the same movement, raising your elbow as high as you can. Focus on opening your chest. Speed is not the goal – stretching and mobility is what we’re after. A more advanced technique is to use a resistance band looped under your armpit at one end and to a fixed location at the other (a pole works best, or even a leg of a standing desk if it’s sturdy and won’t budge). Adding resistance will help build strength and stability into the thoracic spine.

See? Simple, right? Giving your thoracic spine some attention may be something you’ve never thought of before, but the benefits of making sure it’s mobile and flexible are enormous for whole-body health. 

Those of you with desk jobs should pay attention since we all know how easy it is to fall victim to our work and slouch, strain, and slump in our chairs as a result. This, of course, leads to pain and soreness in our neck, shoulders, back, and even our hips.

One of the many benefits of The Backmate is that we’ve made it incredibly easy to target the thoracic spine in either a standing or lying position. With the different attachments available, you can also change the kind of massage and pressure you apply. 

With this knowledge in mind, there is no reason why you shouldn’t be able to give your mid-upper back a little love. Go ahead. You’ll be happy you did. 

Yours in good health,

- Eric

Eric Bostrom
Eric Bostrom


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