If you ever find yourself experiencing back pain, you’re not alone. Statistics tell us that 80% of individuals report experiencing back pain at some point in their life, and more than a quarter of adults reported back pain within the last 3 months alone.
While those statistics may seem high, they come as no surprise after we take a brief look at our back’s anatomy. It’s a complex structure composed of bone, muscle, soft tissue, tendon, intervertebral discs, and more. The slightest miscalculation in our movement can send our back into pain and agony.
Often we hear common instructions that seek to help us avoid back pain. Phrases like “bend at the waist” or “lift with your legs” offer a momentary bout of educational aid, but these mean very little when we find ourselves making weekly trips to the chiropractor.
To truly understand how we can mitigate back pain and injury, we need to start from the beginning. Here we’ll take a deeper look at the back’s anatomical structure to understand its core components and why we often experience back pain in the first place.
From there, we’ll dive deeper to determine which mobility exercises are worth employing, thus providing an opportunity to reduce the likelihood of back pain and injury. Let’s jump right in (after a brief warm-up, of course).
The Anatomy of Your Back
As we mentioned only moments ago, your back is a complex structure with many moving parts. Down the center of your back is the spine, which we also refer to as the vertebral column.
Composed of 26 separate bones called vertebrae, the spine provides the body with form and function. Within the spine, we find the spinal cord — a bundle of nerves that send signals to other parts of the body.
We can break down the spine into four key segments based on the number of vertebrae (bones) in each segment from top to bottom. The cervical spine is composed of seven individual vertebrae, the thoracic spine is composed of 12, the lumbar spine is composed of five, and the tailbone is composed of the sacrum and coccyx.
To remember these numbers, think of your daily eating schedule in relation to your spine. You eat breakfast at 7, lunch at 12, and dinner at 5 (seven cervical vertebrae, 12 thoracic vertebrae, and five lumbar vertebrae. And your tailbone is simply made of two).
When we move beyond the spine itself, however, other components of our back reveal themselves. A complex array of muscles overlap one another to provide strength and support. Intervertebral discs sit between each bone of our spine to act as shock absorbers for the bone itself when we move. Bands of ligaments hold our vertebrae in place while tendons connect muscle to bone.
The rib cage connects to the spine at the mid-back and wraps around our body to protect our organs while providing structure. And the pelvic bones sit at the base of our lower back, marking the point at which our lower half begins.
It quickly becomes obvious that this structure is far more complicated than we once assumed. This is why if only one thing were to go wrong back there (no pun intended), we could easily wind up in intense pain.
But before we determine the best course of action to avoid such pains, we need to take a deeper look at one of our spine’s most important sections, the thoracic vertebrae.
Getting to Know the Thoracic Vertebrae
The thoracic vertebrae encompasses most of the upper back and abdomen. Composed of 12 individual vertebral bones, the thoracic spine (or T-spine, for short) sits below the cervical spine and above the lumbar spine. In terms of its functional role as it pertains to movement and mobility, the thoracic spine houses joints that allow for arm movement, the ability to bend over, and other movements as well.
What makes the thoracic vertebrae so different from other vertebral sections, however, is the fact that pairs of ribs are connected to either side of each of the 12 bones. These ribs curve around the body and create a cage-like structure in the process that protects our body’s vital organs, like the lungs and heart.
The thoracic spine is used very frequently. Whenever we bend over, lean sideways, use our arms, or perform most any movement-based task, the thoracic spine is hard at work. As a result of this continuous use, injuries are bound to occur from time to time. These may include muscular injuries, fractured vertebrae, herniated discs, osteoarthritis, and more.
So what can we do to prevent such injuries and ensure the mobility of our thoracic spine? Let’s delve into some mobility exercises you can use to keep your thoracic spine healthy.
Thoracic Spine Mobility
Ensuring the thoracic spine is free of injury and prepared for movement comes from spending time each day performing mobility exercises. These exercises can disrupt a persistent lack of mobility, increase range of motion, and even ease aches or pains that hinder normal movement patterns.
Thoracic spine mobility exercises can even be utilized alongside other therapies that aim to boost our long-term health. Before performing these exercises alone, consider doing so with a trained individual, like a physical therapist, who’s prepared to offer corrections.
The Foam Roller Extension
Place a foam roller or P-Knot on the floor and align it with the center of your mid-back. After doing so, cross your arms over your chest and place your feet firmly on the ground, transferring your body’s weight onto the foam roller in the process. Imagine being in the sit-up position, only this time a roller will be under your back for support.
Begin by letting the upper half of your body dip down past the foam roller or P-Knot, and be sure to keep your ribs and torso in line with your waist as this occurs. After your upper body has dipped a few inches below the roller, bring it back up and perform the exercise again, taking a few deep breaths during each set of extensions.
This movement will improve thoracic extension as your thoracic spine is stretched ever-so-slightly before it returns to its normal length once again. In doing so, it becomes more flexible and better prepared for natural movements that require the thoracic spine to extend, such as lifting large or heavy objects.
Shoulder Blade Release
Using a massage ball that you can find at most any running or sporting goods store, position your body over the ball to target the major muscle groups surrounding your shoulder blade, or scapula.
Apply an amount of pressure onto the ball that feels comfortable and pain free, and circle your body around the ball until you notice areas that feel more tender than others. Once an area has been identified, move your arm up and down to help release the tension. Repeat this process again on the other shoulder blade.
Performing this exercise will increase shoulder mobility and thoracic mobility as you utilize your own bodyweight to work out tender or sensitive muscle groups surrounding the shoulders and thoracic region of your spine.
Remember that the thoracic vertebrae is working whenever your arms are in motion. Performing exercises on parts of the back that associate with the thoracic vertebrae, as opposed to the thoracic vertebrae itself, will also help improve your thoracic spine mobility.
Begin this exercise by entering the four-point kneeling position. In this position, your hands and knees will be making contact with the ground as if you were turning your back into a flat table. Keep your hands underneath your shoulders and your knees under your hips as you enter the position.
Once comfortable, proceed by rounding your upper back and trying to feel a gentle stretch in the thoracic region as you elongate your back. Imagine doing just as a cat might when it rounds its back during a nice, long stretch.
Return to the starting position and flatten your back before repeating this process again. Do so for 30 repetitions and remember to breathe during each extension. This exercise allows the process of thoracic spine extension to take place, ensuring the spine remains flexible and back mobility is reaching its peak potential.
Sit in a comfortable, solid chair that you might find at the dinner table. Ensure your feet are planted firmly on the ground and your legs are in line with your hips.
Begin by placing your hand on the outer side of your opposite knee, crossing over your body. With your other hand, grab the back of the chair on the same side that your first hand crossed over to, and rotate your spine as if you were cracking your back like you did in middle school. Repeat this process on the other side, and perform this for a total of 30 oscillations on both sides of the body.
This process of thoracic spine rotation will increase the thoracic vertebrae’s degrees of rotation, meaning your thoracic spine will be better prepared to rotate back and forth during ordinary movements.
While this process may remind you of cracking your back, in reality it will target the thoracic vertebrae and engage the muscle groups surrounding this region, ensuring they are capable of dynamic rotations if need be.
While standing in place with your feet shoulder-width apart, hold on to a set of dumbbell weights with one in each hand. Be sure the weight is not so heavy that it causes you to sacrifice your form. Now proceed to bend your body all the way to one side without allowing your back to twist in the process. Hold this position for 5 seconds before alternating sides and repeating the movement on the other side. Perform this action 20 times on both sides of the body.
This core-strengthening exercise will focus attention on the obliques at the sides of the abdomen, as well as the major muscle groups surrounding the spine. Unlike the other exercises that sought to relieve a stiff thoracic spine or increase shoulder flexion, side bends will work to strengthen the muscles that work in tandem with the spine, reducing the likelihood of injury along the way.
Understanding the Importance of T-Spine Mobility
Ensuring your thoracic spine is prepared for both daily movements and athletic performance is paramount in an age where back problems seem to plague us all. By utilizing the mobility exercises described above that seek to biohack your body, and others provided by licensed physical therapy programs, you can ensure your back remains pain-free and healthy for years to come.
From simple foam rolling techniques to repetitive mobility drills, there is a lot we can do to keep our backs in tip-top shape. Treat your back with care and provide it with the attention it deserves.