Back in Trouble

Immobility in your thoracic spine can send pain into your shoulders, neck or lower back. Here’s how to correct the problem.

Back Pain

Shortly after Jon Boyle, 23, competed in his first triathlon in 2005, he developed pain in his lower back and right shoulder. It bothered him most when he ran, but also while riding his bike and sitting at his desk, where he worked 10 to 12 hours a day as an Internet consultant. Guessing that postural imbalances were to blame, Boyle, who now lives in Boca Raton, Fla., sought help from Eric Cressey, CSCS, owner of Cressey Performance Training Center in Hudson, Mass.

“Right away I saw that Jon lacked mobility in his thoracic [middle] spine and stability in his lumbar [lower] spine,” says Cressey, who specializes in balancing athletes’ bodies. He designed a strength-training program to correct these problems. “The pain went away completely within two months, and I’ve been pain-free for two and a half years now,” says Boyle.

While most people will seldom feel pain directly along their thoracic spine, Cressey and other experts understand that its relative immobility can cause pain both above and below it in the back’s kinetic chain.

Reclaiming Flexibility

Considering how dramatically an inflexible thoracic spine can affect your body, it’s surprising how few people even know where it is. Located in the mid-back, the thoracic spine consists of the 12 vertebrae sandwiched between the five vertebrae of the lumbar spine and the seven vertebrae of the cervical (upper) spine. “The curvature of the spine naturally forms three main segments,” explains Cressey.

These segments each have a primary function. “The lumbar spine and cervical spine are designed to provide stability, while the thoracic spine is designed to provide mobility,” says Michael Boyle, CSCS (no relation to Jon), a Massachusetts-based strength-and-conditioning coach and editor of Specifically, the thoracic spine allows you to bend your trunk forward and backward (flexion and extension) and side to side, and to twist your trunk each way (rotation).

For many of us, the thoracic spine does not extend and rotate as well as it should. “Sitting is the main culprit,” says coach Boyle. “When you’re seated, your thoracic spine is locked in a flexed position. Over time, people who spend most of the day sitting lose some of their range of motion.”

While an immobile thoracic spine doesn’t necessarily cause pain directly in the mid-back, it may lead to pain in the shoulders, neck and lower back. “It’s common for people who are knotted up at the thoracic spine to make up for the lack of mobility there with excessive movement in the lumbar spine,” says Cressey. The result is lower-back pain, which affects 80 percent of Americans at one time or another.

The shoulders and neck also compensate for poor thoracic spine mobility, he adds. The shoulder blades gradually move away from the spine, making it more difficult to raise the arms overhead. This increases the likelihood of shoulder injuries and other problems.

“You may get neck pain and tension headaches due to compensations that take place in the cervical spine and the neck,” says Cressey.

To improve your thoracic flexibility, simply add a few extension and rotation exercises to your preworkout warm-up routine. (You’ll also benefit by adding lumbar stability exercises to your strength workouts.) Devote just a little time to mobilizing your mid-back, and you’ll feel the difference everywhere else.

is a running and triathlon expert and the author of several books, including Maximum Strength (Da Capo, 2008) with Eric Cressey.

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