Health: Upper back mobility could help prevent aches and stiffness
After a year of hunching over a laptop, there’s a good chance your upper back has lost flexibility, Liz Connor hears.
Back pain was already extremely common, and it’s no surprise that the last year and a half of confinement hasn’t helped.
In a survey of 2,000 British adults, Nurofen found that 36% of those polled had experienced an increase in back pain, while 26% had more neck pain since the pandemic restrictions took effect.
With more of us hunched over keyboards at makeshift desks at home, and not having as many daily movements as we usually would, it’s no wonder aches can occur.
But, it’s not always the lumbar / lower back or neck that’s to blame – could the thoracic spine really be the root of the problem?
What exactly is the thoracic spine?
“It’s the middle part of the spine, to which the twelve ribs that make up our rib cage are attached,” says Chongsu Lee, physiotherapist and founder of the Back Hug massager (mybackhug.com).
“Because of the strength of the rib cage, the thoracic spine provides upper body stability, protection of our internal organs – such as the heart and lungs – and also helps keep our bodies upright.”
Sitting at a desk all day can impair mobility (or movement) in this area over time, especially if we don’t take steps to keep it mobile during sedentary times.
“It’s one of the least flexible parts of the spine, compared to your neck and lower back, which means it can easily get stiff and tension becomes hard to relieve,” says Lee. .
What Kinds of Problems Can a Stiff Thoracic Spine Cause?
When the upper back becomes tense, a dull, pressing pain between the shoulder blades is one of the most obvious symptoms.
“A stiff thoracic spine is uncomfortable and heavy,” says Lee, adding that it can range from minor pain to excruciating agony. “People often say that they are so desperate to get rid of the discomfort that they want to pull out the muscles.”
Lee adds that without knowing it, you may find yourself trying to cope by wiggling your shoulders, massaging the area yourself, or stretching your neck from side to side.
As the stiffness of the thoracic spine often extends to the shoulder blades, shoulders, and neck, struggling to lift your arms above your head is a key sign that you are experiencing a lack of mobility in the area.
“Your body can feel very uncomfortable when you are lying on your back, forcing you to lie on your side and frequently switch between left and right, impacting the quality of your sleep. and your energy level the next day, ”adds Lee.
A strained thoracic spine can also hamper your progress in the gym. “The thoracic spine is designed to bend, extend, pivot and flex laterally to allow range of motion for the spine. This allows us to bend, crouch, reach for the head, run and to move, ”says sports physiotherapist Tim Allardyce (surreyphysio.co.uk).
If you can’t get range of motion from this area, it is difficult to perform movements such as overhead presses or backbends properly. Often times, pressure is put on the spine when we attempt these movements, which can lead to injury.
What are the causes of the lack of mobility in this area?
When it comes to back strength and mobility, Allardyce says it’s often a matter of “using it or losing it.”
“While there are a number of factors at play, the most likely problem is a general lack of mobility and back strength,” he notes. “The more sedentary we are, the more our spines become constricted, and this restricts our flexibility.”
Lee adds, “Joints are like bicycle chains, and we know they can rust. Bike chains that run regularly and are properly oiled are less likely to become stiff. It’s the same with the joints of the human body – the joints can have suboptimal mobility. when the zone remains inactive for too long, such as when you are sitting at your desk or even lying in bed.
“Since there are over 70 joints in the thoracic spine alone, keeping that area flexible with functional movement is really essential.”
How can people improve the health of their thoracic spine?
“Move, stretch, mobilize,” says Allardyce. “Get up, move, walk, exercise, and start using your back more.
“Maintain good posture, reduce forward bending, and ease your back. It’s also a good idea to eat a balanced diet, go out when the sun is shining for vitamin D, and drink plenty of water. ”
There are many stretches you can try to help relieve tension in your upper back. Try these three on your next screen break …
1. Cow cat
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 look up towards the ceiling, keeping your shoulders away from your ear. As you exhale, bring your belly closer to your spine and round your back towards the ceiling. Repeat 10 times.
2. Thoracic rotation
Start on your hands and knees. Place one hand behind your head, so that your elbow is extended at shoulder height.
Slowly rotate your upper body so that your elbow is pointing towards the ceiling. Hold the rotation for a few seconds, then rotate your elbow toward the floor. Repeat 10 times.
2. Prayer stretch
Get on your knees near a chair. Rest your elbows on the chair and drop your chest and head between your elbows to feel a stretch in your upper back and lats (large muscles on either side of the middle of the upper back). Hold for five seconds, release and repeat 10 times.
Always contact your GP or physiotherapist if your pain does not improve with self-help measures, or if you have new, serious or worsening symptoms. Seek professional advice before starting any new exercise program.