A stiff Thoracic spine (middle back) is something many people suffer from. There can be many reasons for this, some of which are prolonged sitting, excessive computer use and poor posture. As the clip below shows, an increased thoracic kyphosis (bend) produces stiffness in the neck which can lead to tightness and headaches. Increasing the mobility of the thoracic spine reduces this bend, straightens us up, allows more movement of the neck and helps to ease tightness and headaches.
Below you can see the small facet joints of the spine. These joints connect adjacent vertebrae and guide movement of the spine. When they stiffen up rotation becomes difficult and the back often exhibits a rounded posture at the shoulders and base of neck.
The ribs attach close to the facet joints on the edge of the vertebrae, as shown below. These joints (called costo-transverse joints) can also become stiff and restrict mobility. Therefore, techniques for mobilising the ribs and deep breathing can also facilitate movement of the thoracic spine.
An effective way to mobilise the facet joints and costotransverse joints in the thoracic spine is to use two small massage balls or tennis balls, taped together in a peanut shape. When placed over the back as shown, each of the balls will line up with these joints. By laying down on the balls in this position, pressure will then be applied to help to mobilise these joints in a more specific fashion. You can even target joints that have been found to be particularly stiff or restricted using this technique.
The video below demonstrates how to use the peanut shaped balls to mobilise your thoracic spine (middle back). To make the joints move even further and gain more mobility, the arms are lifted up whilst breathing in deeply with the balls positioned under the back. Arm lifting causes the thoracic spine to go more into extension, and deep breathing rotates the ribs. This helps with freeing up the connections between adjacent vertebrae and between a vertebrae and its adjacent rib.
Another variation for mobilising your thoracic spine is to use a foam roller (or half foam roller as shown) instead of the peanut balls. This will add a stronger stretch, but it will be less specific in how it applies pressure to your back. Always consult with your physiotherapist as to which technique is more suitable for you. If you have a painful thoracic spine the use of a foam roller for mobility can potentially increase your pain by being too forceful.
In addition to the simple mobility exercises shown above, there are a variety of higher level thoracic mobility exercises. These are often useful in the younger athletic population involved in sports or gym based training. One great exercise is 'threading the needle', shown in the clip below. Here the resistance of a strong rubber band is used to help pull the thoracic spine into rotation, using a foam roller to guide the upper limb. The resistance from the band also helps to relax and stretch muscles around the shoulder blade.
Addressing stiffness of the thoracic spine can have huge benefits for posture, pain relief and athletic performance. It is also a great way to maintain healthy posture and function if you are a desk worker. As a matter of fact, after all this typing I think its time I did some thoracic mobility exercises myself!
The Gap Physio