The Thoracic Spine “The Big Toe of the Upper Body”
Remember how important the big toe is to the rest of your lower body? The thoracic spine relates just as much to proper shoulder function and lower back pain. This blog will focus on the shoulders and thoracic spine. Many of my previous blogs posts were about keeping your lower body mobile and strong to help support your hips and core. The upper body is equally important: weakness in your upper back and shoulders can also lead to hip and lower back tightness or injuries. The same is true the other way around. Ankle, foot, and lower leg tightness/weakness often results in tightness in the thoracic spine and shoulders. Those of you who work with me have certainly heard me say “weakness leads to tightness.” Our muscles are the primary drivers of movement. If our muscles weaken, our movements become less efficient and more challenging. Keeping the muscles of the thoracic spine strong is vital to maintaining good shoulder mechanics.
The shoulder joint typically refers to the upper arm joint sitting in the socket of the scapular. This is called the glenoid-humeral joint (GH). The shoulder is much more complex than this. The shoulder/thoracic spine complex is made up of four joints: the GH joint; the Acromion-clavicular (AC) joint; the sterno-clavicular joint (SC); and the thoraco-scapular joint (TS). If any one of these joints functions incorrectly it will impact one or all of the other joints. We have 15 muscles that connect directly to those four shoulder joints. An injury or weakness in any one of those 15 muscles will impact our movements which can lead to compensatory movement patterns and possible strains, sprains, impingement, tendonitis, or torn muscles.
I am going to focus this blog on the thoracic spine and the thoraco-scapular joint. This area of the body is becoming increasingly stressed because of the constant flexion in our neck and thoracic spine due to the long periods of time we spend looking down at our cell phones and other hand-held devices.
The most effective way to improve motion in a multi-directional joint is to create and/or stimulate the movements in which it can move. Doing this will lead to improved mobility in the directions that it is unable to achieve. For example, a great way to increase lower leg internal rotation is to improve lower leg extension and flexion. Most of our muscles assist in moving us in multiple directions, so it is best to exercise and stimulate your muscles in as many directions as possible.
Take a look at the six-minute video to see a group of exercises designed to improve your thoracic mobility. Optimal thoracic mobility will certainly improve your shoulder mobility and reduce the risk of injuring your shoulders. The exercises below are all demonstrated in the video. Perform each exercise for 10 reps and try to do these daily. They are low-intensity exercises/stretches.
1. Quadruped cervical extension and rotation
2. Standing bilateral – arm running motion
3. Simultaneous bilateral shoulder flexion and extension in full ROM (range of motion)
4. Kneeling lunge position trunk overhead lateral flexion
5. Kneeling lunge position push and pull with a bar
6. Pelvic tilts
7. Reverse Crunches.
Not only will these exercises help prevent shoulder injuries, they will also help with any lower back and hip problems you might be experiencing.