Here’s how to strengthen—and gain mobility in—your upper back.
Surprise! Your lower-back pain might actually be an upper-back problem. Here’s why, and how to feel better.
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.