Health: Why upper back mobility could help to keep stiffness at bay

After a year hunching over a laptop, there’s a good chance our upper backs will have lost flexibility

Thursday, 10th June 2021, 9:41 am
The thoracic spine

Back pain was already extremely common, and it’s no surprise the past year-and-a-half of lockdown living hasn’t helped.

In a survey of 2000 UK adults, Nurofen found 36 per cent of respondents had experienced an increase in back aches, while 26% had more neck pain since pandemic restrictions came into place.

With more of us hunching over keyboards at makeshift desks at home, and not having as much day-to-day movement as we usually would, it’s little wonder aches and pains can occur.

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Stretching exercises are great for the upper back

But, it’s not always the lumbar/lower back or the neck that’s to blame – could the thoracic spine actually be the root of the issue?

What exactly is the thoracic spine?

“It’s the middle part of the spine, to which the twelve ribs, which make up our rib cage, are attached,” explains Chongsu Lee, physiotherapist and founder of massage device, Back Hug (mybackhug.com).

“Because of the sturdiness of the rib cage, the thoracic spine provides stability to the upper body, protection of our internal organs – such as the heart and lungs – and helps to keep our body in an upright position too.”

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 doing sedentary periods.

“It’s one of the less flexible parts of the spine, when compared to your neck and lower back, which means it can easily become stiff and the tension there becomes hard to relieve,” says Lee.

What sorts of issues can a stiff thoracic spine cause?

When your upper back becomes tight, a dull, pressing pain between the shoulder blades is one of the most obvious symptoms.

“A stiff thoracic spine feels uncomfortable and heavy,” says Lee, adding that it can range from a minor ache to excruciating agony.

“People often say they are so desperate to get rid of the discomfort, that they want to tear the muscles off.”

Lee adds that 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 key 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,” adds Lee.

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 range of movement to the spine. This allows us to bend, squat, reach over-head, run, and move,” says sports physiotherapist Tim Allardyce (surreyphysio.co.uk).

If you can’t get range of motion from this area, it’s difficult to execute moves like overhead presses or backbends properly. Often, pressure is put on the lumber spine when we attempt these movements, which can lead to injury.

What causes lack of mobility in this area?

When it comes to back strength and mobility, Allardyce says it’s often a case of ‘use it or lose it’.

“While there are a number of factors at play, the most likely issue is a general lack of mobility and strength of the back,” he notes.

“The more sedentary we are, the more restricted our spines become, and this restricts our flexibility.”

Lee adds: “Joints are like bicycle chains, and we know they can become rusty.

“Bicycle chains that run regularly and are properly oiled are less likely to become stiff.

“It’s the same with the joints in the human body – joints can have suboptimal 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, it’s really key to keep this area supple with functional movement.”

How can people improve their thoracic spine health?

“Move, stretch, mobilise,” says Allardyce. “Get up, move around, get walking, get exercising, and start using your back more.

“Maintain good posture, reduce forward bending, and take the pressure off your back.

“It’s also a good idea to eat a balanced diet, get outside when the sun is shining to top up your vitamin D levels, and drink plenty of water.”

There are many stretches you can try to help relieve upper back tension too. Try these three on your next screen break…

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 away from your ear.

As you exhale, draw your belly to your spine and round your back toward the ceiling. Repeat 10 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 rotate your elbow back towards the floor. Repeat 10 times.

2. 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 10 times.

Back pain is very common, but it’s often not possible to identify the cause. Doctors call this non-specific back pain.

Sometimes the pain may be from an injury such as a sprain or strain, but often it happens for no apparent reason.

It’s very rarely caused by anything serious.

Occasionally back pain can be caused by a medical condition such as:

*a slipped (prolapsed) disc – where a disc of cartilage in the spine presses on a nearby nerve;

*sciatica – irritation of the nerve that runs from the pelvis to the feet

These conditions tend to cause additional symptoms, such as numbness, weakness or a tingling sensation, and they’re treated differently from non-specific back pain.

You should contact a GP or NHS 111 immediately if you have back pain and:

*numbness or tingling around your genitals or buttocks

*difficulty peeing

*loss of bladder or bowel control – peeing or pooing yourself

*chest pain

*a high temperature

*unintentional weight loss

*a swelling or a deformity in your back

*it does not improve after resting or is worse at night

*it started after a serious accident, such as after a car accident

*the pain is so bad you’re having problems sleeping

*pain is made worse when sneezing, coughing or pooing

*the pain is coming from the top of your back, between your shoulders, rather than your lower back

*These problems could be a sign of something more serious and need to be checked urgently.

*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.