Got back pain? You’re in good company: About 80 percent of Americans experience back problems at some point. Most people attribute back pain to their low backs (lumbar spine) or necks (cervical spine), but oftentimes issues in the thoracic spine—the upper back—are actually to blame.
Although the thoracic spine doesn’t get much attention, it’s literally the backbone for your lungs and heart, surrounded by your rib cage, which protects these vital organs. Of the spine’s 70 joints, 50 percent are in the thoracic spine. If you factor in the additional 20 specialty joints (called the costotransverse joints) that help your ribs articulate and move, you’ll quickly understand that your thoracic spine is a workhorse responsible for two-thirds of the movement in your torso—so the odds of something going awry are high.
Despite the thoracic spine’s potential for movement, the unique design of your upper back and rib cage does not allow for as much movement as you may think. This is to protect your lungs and heart: excess motion here could impact these key organs. What’s more, the vertebrae of the thoracic spine interlock with one another and act as a hard stop during back bends—again, to defend your internal organs.
These movement-inhibiting mechanisms are important. However, if you lack the proper amount of mobility in your thoracic spine, then the most mobile junction of your spine—T12/L1, the lowest point of the thoracic spine and the highest part of the lumbar spine—may become hypermobile to make up for it (particularly in backbends). Lack of thoracic spine mobility can also create an excessively mobile cervical spine.
To help keep your cervical spine and lumbar spine pain free, you’ll want to move the thoracic spine in smart, safe ways to maintain strength and mobility and prevent it from recruiting extra help. Here’s what you need to know.
See also A Yoga Sequence to Target Sources of Back Pain
The Thoracic Spine/Breath Connection
The hallmark of a healthy spine is that it can access all its inherent ranges of motion. Once you start leaving a motion out, the joints and tissues stiffen—and in the case of the upper back, this can translate into breathing issues. An excessively immobile thoracic spine can lead to a stiff rib cage, which can then restrict the capacity of your diaphragm and lungs. Because breath control gives us access to our nervous system and emotional centers, the interplay between the upper back and breath are critical for permitting relaxation, well-being, emotional attunement, and whole-body health.
A Yogic Self-Test for Range of Motion
Uddiyana Bandha (Upward Abdominal Lock) This challenges your thoracic spine and rib cage to use their full ranges of motion at the costovertebral joints. The motion takes the ribs to their most elevated state, causing the diaphragm to stretch laterally.
How to Stand with your feet slightly apart, eyes open. Inhale deeply through your nose, then exhale quickly and forcibly through your nose. Fully contract your abdominal muscles, pushing as much air as possible out of your lungs; then relax your abdominals. Perform what’s called a mock inhalation by expanding your rib cage as if you were inhaling, but don’t actually do so. This pulls the abdominal muscles up into the rib cage and creates a concave shape resembling an umbrella within the rib cage. Come into Jalandhara Bandha (Chin Lock). Hold for 5–15 seconds, then slowly let your belly descend, inhaling normally. Note: Perform this only on an empty stomach and only after an exhalation. If you’re pregnant, it’s OK to practice Uddiyana Bandha if you did so regularly before your pregnancy.
See also Work Your Core in Any Pose
Body of Knowledge: Anatomy of the Thoracic Spine
There are multiple muscles in your thoracic spine region, most of which also run through your cervical spine or lumbar spine regions (or both). Here, get to know the deeper muscles that attach to your thoracic spine, as well as those that share a soft-tissue relationship with the thoracic spine and rib cage.
As a group, these muscles connect different portions of each vertebra to adjacent or semi-adjacent vertebrae.
Erector spinae muscles
As a group, these muscles provide postural support for your trunk and facilitate multiple motions of your torso.
• Spinalis thoracis
• Longissimus thoracis
Serratus posterior superior
This muscle connects your upper three thoracic vertebrae to ribs 2–5. It helps elevate your ribs when you inhale.
This muscle attaches to the inside of your lower six ribs; you may notice it when it’s spasming with the hiccups.
These muscles are situated between each rib. They stabilize your rib cage and assist in breathing.
These muscles connect the transverse processes of each thoracic vertebra to the rib below and help you inhale.
See also Poses by Anatomy
A Vertebra, Dissected
SPINOUS PROCESS These are bony projections off
the back of each vertebra. Alongside each spinous process is an arch-like structure called the lamina, which provides
a major point of attachment for your spine’s muscles
INTERVERTEBRAL DISCS These are the spine’s shock absorbers. Each disc forms a fibrocartilaginous joint (a symphysis) to allow slight movement of
vertebrae and hold adjacent vertebrae together.
TRANSVERSE PROCESS These bony projections off each side of each vertebra are the attachment sites for your spine’s muscles and ligaments.
VERTEBRAL BODY This thick oval segment of bone forms the front of each vertebra. A protective layer of
compact bone encircles a cavity of spongey bone tissue.
See also Poses for Your Spine
4 Poses to Increase Thoracic Spine Mobility
Take your spine through its five different motions—spinal flexion, spinal extension, lateral flexion and extension, and spinal rotation—with these poses.
About Our Pros
Writer Jill Miller is the creator of Yoga Tune Up and The Roll Model Method, and author of The Roll Model: A Step-by-Step Guide to Erase Pain, Improve Mobility, and Live Better in Your Body. She has presented case studies at the Fascia Research Congress and the International Association of Yoga Therapists Symposium on Yoga Therapy and Research, and she teaches at yoga conferences worldwide. Learn more at yogatuneup.com.
Model Amy Ippoliti is a yoga teacher and faculty member at 1440 Multiversity, Omega Institute, Esalen Institute, and the Kripalu Center.