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.
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.
For spinal flexion, try …
Sasangasana (Rabbit Pose)
This simple pose places you into a static somersault position, helping you experience spinal flexion (rolling forward), particularly in the thoracic spine.
How to Come to Balasana (Child’s Pose), then grasp your heels with your hands. Activate your abdominals and round your spine, setting the top of your head on the ground while lifting your butt away from your heels. Mindfully breathe into the back of your body, and isometrically expand the distances from your crown to your sacrum and between your shoulder blades. Stay here for 8–12 breaths.
For spinal extension, try …
This pose resembles the beginning of a drop-back into Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel Pose) without actually dropping back. It helps to stabilize the thoracolumbar junction (where T12 and L1 meet), which can be hypermobile if your thoracic spine lacks mobility.
How to Stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) and interlace your hands behind your head. Activate your abdominals and gluteals to posteriorly tilt (tuck) your pelvis. Inhale, and feel your ribs expand; exhale, and feel your lungs deflate. You may feel like you’re falling backward, but with support. Lengthen your spine up and away from your pelvis, and continue to lean back: Resist the urge to backbend at the thoracolumbar junction by contracting your abs and transferring the burden of the backbend to your thoracic vertebrae. There is no rush to progress more deeply into the pose. Instead, witness the effect each breath has on the relationship between your rib cage and thoracic spine. Stay here for 8–10 breaths.
For lateral flexion and extension, try …
Parighasana (Gate Pose)
This traditional asana honors your body’s
ability to laterally flex and extend. In other words, it helps you side-bend.
How to Place your right knee on the ground and plant your left foot 2–3 feet to the side. Place your left hand on your left leg for support as you bend toward your left side with your arm overhead, laterally flexing your spine to the left. Keep your abdominals braced, and pull 8–12 full breaths into your ribs. Then, switch sides. Variation: Instead of placing your left hand on your left leg, place your left palm on your left rib cage and nudge your ribs skyward. This will increase lateral extension on the right side and facilitate a major stretch in the intercostal muscles on your right side, mobilizing your lateral-flexion capacity.
For spinal rotation, try …
Vrschikasana (Scorpion Pose, variation)
This pose improves rotation in the thoracic spine and can help reverse a slumped upper back.
How to Lie on your stomach with your arms outstretched on either side of you (in a T position). Activate your abdominals to limit backbending at the thoracolumbar junction. Turn your neck to look toward your left hand and roll onto your right hip. Keep your glutes active, posteriorly tilting your pelvis and drifting your left hip and foot behind you while your left shoulder stays fixed on the ground. You should feel this rotation only in your upper back. If your flexibility permits, touch your left foot to the floor. Take 8–12 breaths, breathing deeply into your thoracic region, then slowly switch sides.
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.