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Improving Thoracic Mobility

When it comes to physical therapy, Made 2 Move has your back. Literally. Back pain is one of the most common issues we see patients here at Made 2 Move for. Whether it’s chronic pain or injury, most people recognize that strengthening the back muscles is important for getting out of pain. But what about mobility through the back, especially the T-spine (aka the mid-back)?

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 or rounding through the back). The thoracic spine has the potential for lots of movement but like our Made 2 Move therapists like to say- 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. Someone could have the strength to do a perfect front squat, but if they lack T-spine mobility, it will be incredibly challenging to move through the full range of motion required for the movement. 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. This can cause a lot of neck and lower back pain.

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 body part is sandwiched between these two issues? The T-Spine! Often, pain or weakness related to our T-spine won’t be felt in the actual T-spine: “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. Many Crossfitters and weightlifters face frustration or injury with lifts because they struggle through snatches, front squats, or cleans. 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 evaluate an individual’s T-spine mobility, and here at Made 2 Move, our therapists will evaluate your T-spine mobility and prescribe the proper exercises if improvement is needed. Below is a sneak peak into some of the exercises your Made 2 Move therapist may prescribe to improve T-spine mobility:

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 taking easy inhales and prolonged exhales (3-5 seconds) when in a challenging position.

Moving (or twisting) forward:

Improving T-spine mobility will obviously improve rotational movements like your yoga practice or golf swing, but many patients also find relief and less stiffness through their entire body after they strengthen and increase mobility through their T-spine. Think: T-spine mobility is required for even the simplest of movements like twisting to buckle your seatbelt or pick up your pen that dropped at an odd angle on the floor behind you.

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 us at Made 2 Move Physical Therapy. We have 4 locations and the most knowledgeable PTs in Charleston to help with all your fitness and injury related needs. Reach out to today to see if improving T-spine mobility could be the solution for you!


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