The thoracic spine (T-Spine) is an interesting part of the body. In recent times it has taken the brunt of the modern sedentary lifestyle of being hunched over on a chair and working on a computer for hours in a day for many months and years. These modern sedentary lifestyle changes and new work/office setups have had implications on our musculoskeletal system. What is interesting is that the T-Spine itself presents only with a few symptoms like mid back myofascial pain, stiffness, loss of mobility etc. However, other joints in proximity of the T-Spine are affected adversely due to this. Here is a list of problems we often see in an physiotherapy office that our closely related to an excessively stiff kyphotic T-Spine.
- Shoulder impingement- An excessively kyphotic mid back places the scapula in a downwardly rotated, anteriorly tipping and protracted position. This position of the scapula has shown to decrease the sub acromion space in the shoulder when performing overhead activities leading to a common problem we see often; shoulder impingement/pain. Try this little test, try elevating your arm up to the maximum flexion elevation with a straight Tspine and shoulders pulled down and back and then with an excessive hunched over position. Which one feels better and which is worse? See the video below and try it yourself.
- Neck pain- A kyphotic hunched over posture tips the head (weighing about 10-12 lbs approx.) anteriorly and extends our line of sight downwards to the floor. For compensation, we tilt the head backward which increases Cervical lordosis and causes upper cervical spine to go into extension to have a regular straight field of vision. This causes increase tone/tension in the cervical extensors often compressing the greater occipital nerve and other important cervical structures causing symptoms like neck pain, headaches, radiating symptoms etc.
- Low back pain- An excessive kyphotic T-Spine pushes the thorax anteriorly and causes compensatory increase in the lumbar lordosis due to increased tension in the lumbar extensors causing pain at the low back. This is the classic presentation of the ‘Lower Crossed Syndrome’.
- Breathing- Along with the above compensation, the thorax lifts up due to inability of the abdominal muscles to provide inferior stabilization (lower ribs flaring) decreasing overall chest expansion and causing poor breathing quality and control.
Furthermore, if you follow the joint-by- joint model of training by Cook and Boyle, you can see that the thoracic spine is meant to be mobile but has a tendency to get stiff.
So, here our some strategies/exercises we can use to maintain general T-Spine mobility. The angles drawn in the video are not exactly accurate and are used for demonstration purpose only-
- Bench/chair thoracic spine extension with stick-
- T-Spine extension on foam roller
- T-Spine windmill rotation
- Cat Cow
- Four point T-Spine rotation
- Threading the needle
Closing thoughts, the mid back is meant to provide mobility but tends to get stiff and excessively kyphotic given our contemporary lifestyles. This can open the floodgates to a myriad of musculo-skeletal problems. It is paramount to keep working on its mobility.