What is the T-Spine?
The t-spine, or thoracic spine, is the middle segment of the spinal column. Composed of 12 vertebrae, it is responsible for primarily rotation (think golf swing or baseball swing) but also plays a role in extension (think backbend) and flexion (think cat pose). The thoracic spine has the potential for lots of movement but you must use it or you’ll lose it!
Why is Thoracic Spine Mobility Important?
Trouble with overhead movements? Chronic low back pain? Neck pain? These may be the result of limited t-spine mobility. When the thoracic spine lacks mobility, the lumbar spine (vertebrae making up the lower back) or cervical spine (vertebrae making up the neck), which are generally designed for more stability and less mobility, will compensate.
One of the most common issues we see patients for is chronic low back pain (CLBP)- so common it even has its own acronym. Another common issue is difficulty, pain, or limitations with overhead movements. What is sandwiched between these two issues? The T-Spine! Often, pain or weakness won’t be felt in the actual t-spine but, “instead, your lower back will take over work for which it’s really not designed, getting chronic pain for its troubles, and your scapula (shoulder blades) will compensate by moving away from the spine, making overhead shoulder work difficult. Everything in the body is linked, remember, and you can’t remove a major player from the equation without seriously affecting the balance” (Sisson 2010).
In addition to pain and overhead limitations, a lack of t-spine mobility can also lead to limitations in squats and olympic lifts. Physio Rob Taylor notes that, “a lot of missed lifts occur because the chest is unable to open up due to stiffness in the thoracic spine and decreased strength in upper back muscles.”
How to improve T-Spine mobility
How do you know if you are lacking t-spine mobility? There are a few tests that can be done to check t-spine mobility, and here at Prime, our therapists will evaluate your t-spine mobility and prescribe exercises if improvement is needed. Three of our favorite movements for T Spine Rotation can be found here. For thoracic spine extension, especially important for overhead athletes, try this movement. A few other exercises that could be useful are thread the needle, cat cow, banded rotational rows, and quadruped thoracic rotation
As always, the power of the breath comes into play when thinking about t-spine mobility. It is especially important to tap into our breath when working on t-spine mobility movements because as Dr. Packer, DPT, CSCS of Move Strong Physical Therapy notes, “slow, relaxed breathing facilitates a calm state of the nervous system. When the brain interprets a certain position/situation as non-threatening, it is more likely to allow and retain motion.” Practice this by easy inhales and prolonged exhales (3-5 seconds).
If you are dealing with low back pain, neck pain, or feel limited in overhead or squatting movements in the gym, come see us today to see if t-spine mobility could be the solution!