EVERY DAY PEOPLE hunch over their phones and laptops, so there’s a good chance our upper backs will have lost flexibility. Increasing our upper back mobility is essential to keep those aches and stiffness at bay and prevent our postures from becoming permanently altered as we age.
Back pain was already widespread, and it’s no surprise that lockdown living hasn’t helped. A recent survey of 2000 UK adults found that 36% of respondents had experienced an increase in backaches, while 26% had more neck pain since pandemic restrictions came into place.
With more people hunching over keyboards at makeshift desks at home and not having as much day-to-day movement as we usually would, it’s no wonder many people complain about our aches and pains. But it’s not always the lumbar/lower back or the neck that’s to blame – could the thoracic spine be the root of the issue?
The thoracic spine is the middle part of the spine, to which the twelve ribs, which make up our rib cage, are attached. Because of the strength within the rib cage structure, the thoracic spine provides stability to the upper body, protecting our internal organs – such as the heart and lungs – and helps keep our body in an upright position. The cervical (neck) and thoracic spine together and their associated muscles hold our heads up, and that is no easy task, with the average head weighing in at 16lb.
Sitting at a desk all day can cause the mobility (or movement) in this area to weaken over time – especially if we don’t take steps to keep it mobile during sedentary periods.
The thoracic spine is one of the less flexible parts of the spine compared to your neck and lower back, which means it can quickly become stiff, and the tension there becomes hard to relieve.
When your upper back becomes tight, a dull, pressing pain between the shoulder blades is one of the most apparent symptoms. A stiff thoracic spine feels uncomfortable and heavy, ranging from a minor ache to excruciating agony. People often say they are so desperate to get rid of their discomfort they want to tear the muscles off. But, without knowing it, you may find yourself trying to cope by wiggling your shoulders, self-massaging the area, or stretching the neck from side to side.
As thoracic spine stiffness often extends as far as your shoulder blades, shoulders and neck, struggling to lift your arms above your head is a critical sign that you’re experiencing a lack of mobility in the area. Your body may feel very uncomfortable when lying on your back, causing you to lie on your side and frequently switch between the left and right, with a knock-on impact on your sleep quality and energy level the following day.
A tight thoracic spine may also inhibit your progress at the gym. The thoracic spine is designed to bend, extend, rotate and side-flex to allow a range of movement to the spine. This will enable us to bend, squat, reach overhead, run, and move. If you can’t get a range of motion from this area, it isn’t easy to execute moves like overhead presses or backbends properly. Often, pressure is put on the lumbar spine when we attempt these movements, leading to injury.
When it comes to back strength and mobility, it’s often a case of ‘use it or lose it. While there are several factors at play, the most likely issue is a general lack of mobility and strength of the back. The more sedentary we are, the more restricted our spines become, limiting our flexibility. Joints are like bicycle chains, and we know they can become rusty. Bicycle chains that run regularly and are adequately oiled are less likely to become stiff. It’s the same with the joints in the human body – joints can have sub-optimal mobility when the area stays inactive for too long, such as when you sit at your desk or even lie in bed.
As there are more than 70 joints in the thoracic spine alone, keeping this area supple with functional movement is critical. Move, stretch, mobilise - get up, move around, get walking, exercise, and use your back more. Maintain good posture, reduce forward bending, and take the pressure off your back.
You can also try many stretches to help relieve upper back tension.
1. Cat cow
Start on your hands and knees with your wrists directly under your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips. As you inhale, lift your chin and chest, and gaze up toward the ceiling, drawing the shoulders back away from your ear. As you exhale, draw your belly to your spine and round your back toward the top. Repeat ten times.
2. Thoracic rotation
Begin on your hands and knees. Place one hand behind your head, so your elbow is extended at shoulder height.
Slowly rotate your upper body so your elbow is pointing towards the ceiling. Hold the rotation for a couple of seconds, and then turn your elbow toward the floor. Repeat ten times.
3. Prayer Stretch
Take a kneeling position close to a chair. Rest your elbows onto the chair and drop your chest and head between your elbows to feel a stretch in the upper back and lats (large muscles on either side of your middle-upper back). Hold for five seconds, release and repeat ten times.
Always contact your GP or physiotherapist if your pain isn’t improving with self-help measures or if you have any new, severe or worsening symptoms. Seek professional advice before starting any new exercise regime..