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The Basic Anatomy of Your Upper Back

by Lindsey McFadden

Male and female doing back hand clip stretch

As you’re doing your regular upper back stretching exercises, you’re probably wondering about the components of your upper back and why it happens to be the most stable part of your spine. Although this region features more stability and stiffness compared to the other parts of your spine, it has a limited range of motion. Learning more about the anatomy of your thoracic spine can help you better understand the possible causes of any pain you may be experiencing in your upper back. 

What is the Thoracic Spine? 

Your spinal column is made up of three major sections: cervical, thoracic, and lumbar. The thoracic spine refers to the part of your spine in the upper back and abdomen. It’s used for most daily activities, like arm movement, bending over, and standing up straight. The thoracic spine is made up of many bones, tendons, ligaments, and more than are responsible for how you move and what you feel. 

This part of the spinal column is also responsible for supporting the top of the human body. The 12 vertebrae that make up your thoracic spine are numbered T1 through T12 from top to bottom. Injury to any of the thoracic vertebra can cause serious issues, such as loss of feeling, permanent damage to the nerves, difficulty walking, or paralysis. 

What Are the Roles and Functions of the Thoracic Spine? 

Two of the most important roles of the thoracic spine are to protect the spinal cord and anchor your rib cage. It’s built to provide stability, while the lumbar and cervical spine are more for mobility. The 12 vertebrae stacked on each other form the foundation of its sturdy spinal column. These bony arches create a hollow protective space for the spinal cord while supporting the neck, rib cage, soft tissues, and more. 

Your rib cage is supported by the thoracic spine in the back. It forms a bony structure around it to protect your vital organs, like the heart and lungs. Sometimes, upper back pain and chest pain aren’t too concerning. Since the thoracic spine is near those essential organs, it’s always a good idea to see a doctor if you’re having this problem. You don’t want it to be anything serious, like a heart attack. 

The Anatomy of Your Thoracic Spine 

Now that you know that your thoracic spine is what helps protect your spinal column, it’s time to learn about the basic anatomy! Soft tissues support your thoracic spine. However, without your muscles, ligaments, and tendons, it would be impossible for your body to twist, throw, and move. Below is a list of some of the major parts of your upper back: 

Vertebrae 

The vertebrae are your spine’s building blocks that are responsible for adequately supporting your body weight. Of your spine’s three regions, the thoracic spine has the greatest number of vertebrae, and it extends from the shoulders to the waist. 

Intervertebral Discs 

Did you know the space between your vertebrae has intervertebral discs? These act as your spine’s shock absorbers each time you move your back. They’re made up of two parts – the nucleus pulposus is the gel-like inner substance, and the annulus fibrosus is the outer band that resembles a tire. Your upper back has more annulus fibrosus compared to the other spinal regions. 

Your spinal cord and spinal nerves are housed by a protective tunnel called the spinal canal, which is made up of your vertebrae and intervertebral discs. Furthermore, these nerves are responsible for helping various parts of your body feel and move.  

Muscles 

Your movements are powered by strands of tissues called muscles. They’re arranged in layers – the ones closest to the skin’s surface are the trapezius, rhomboids, latissimus dorsi, serratus anterior and posterior, and the pectoralis minor. Middle layer muscles are the iliocostalis, longissimus, and spinalis. Finally, the deepest layers are collectively known as the transversospinales. 

Ligaments 

Your ligaments are the strong yet flexible bands of tissue that are responsible for linking your bones and providing structural stability in the spine. Your thoracic spine has several of them that run down the front of the vertebral bodies, attach to the back of the vertebral bodies, and within the spinal canal. You also have thick ligaments that connect your ribs to the transverse processes of the thoracic spine. 

Tendons 

The tendons keep your muscles connected to your bones. They serve to move the bones and structure in your upper back. Your tendons pull the bone into movement as a muscle contracts and can also absorb some of the impact your muscles take as they spring into action. 

Nerves 

The nerves in your thoracic spine control the muscles and organs in your chest and abdomen. Spinal nerves can send sensory information to the central nervous system while transmitting commands from the central nervous system to your body’s periphery. 

Joints 

Your thoracic spine is made up of two kinds of joints. The joints between vertebral bodies are joined by intervertebral discs, which are made of fibrocartilage. The ones between vertebral arches are formed by articulating superior and inferior articular processes from adjacent vertebrae. 

Stretch Zone practitioner doing upper body stretch to female customer

Benefits of Upper Back Stretches 

Your upper back plays a significant role in how you feel and move, so it’s a good idea to keep that area stretched. Below, we’ve listed some reasons as to why upper back stretches are beneficial for your health and well-being. 

It Relieves Stress 

Did you know stretching releases endorphins that can enhance your mood and help reduce pain? It also encourages you to focus on your breathing, which is another way to help you de-stress. Stretching is a great way to practice mindfulness, as it allows you to focus on your body. 

It Prevents Back Pain 

Since stretching keeps your muscles limber, it can prevent back pain from occurring. When stretching before a workout, it’ll keep your muscles from getting injured. You can also recover quicker if you stretch after a recent injury. 

It Aids in Posture Improvement 

Regularly stretching your upper back is proven to improve your posture. It allows you to keep your spine in good alignment so you can stand up straight and hold your head high. Remember – good posture makes you appear more confident and attractive! 

It Improves Your Range of Motion 

The more often you stretch, the greater your range of motion and flexibility will become. This will prevent you from pulling a muscle or sustaining other kinds of injuries. Greater range of motion can also improve your physical activity since you’re lengthening your muscles. 

It Prepares Your Muscles for Physical Activity 

Loosening your muscles before exercising will not only help improve your workout, but it will also lessen your chances of straining or pulling a muscle. When you stretch, it also increases the blood flow in that area. As a result, your muscles are less likely to get sore, and your recovery time will significantly improve. 

It Helps Get More Oxygen into the Lungs 

Stretching your upper back specifically can help bring more oxygen to your lungs. Some spinal problems and musculoskeletal pain can cause discomfort in both the upper back and the chest. Taking some of the pressure off your upper back can eliminate chest pain since you’re opening the chest and getting more oxygen into the lungs. 

Decreases Tension Headaches 

Tension from tight upper back and neck muscles can lead to headaches that can interfere with your daily life. Certain back stretching exercises can release that tension and help to reduce headaches you may experience because of it. Other positive lifestyle changes, like a well-balanced diet, adequate hydration, and getting plenty of rest can aid in giving you better results and pain relief. 

Common Upper Back Problems 

Back issues are a common concern with most American adults. It could also occur due to various reasons. Some of the most common injuries or concerns people experience with their upper backs include the following: 

  • Osteoporosis 
  • Sprains and strains 
  • Spine fracture 
  • Spinal degeneration
  • Abnormal kyphosis
  • Scoliosis
  • Metastatic cancer

Assisted stretching practitioner doing upper body stretch to senior male

What Affects Thoracic Spine Mobility? 

The two main culprits of limited thoracic spine mobility and upper back pain are prolonged sitting and poor posture. Sitting for a long time puts tremendous pressure on the back muscles and the spinal discs. After a while, they will become strained and cause pain in your back, neck, and arms. 

If you have a desk job, make sure you’re sitting properly and have something to support your lower back. Getting up to take a walk about every hour is also strongly recommended to keep your muscles, joints, ligaments, and tendons loose. 

Poor posture can cause the spinal ligaments to overstretch and possibly damage your spinal structure if it’s done often enough. Whether you’re sitting or standing, good posture means the spinal curves are all balanced and aligned. A tip to remember to improve your posture is to imagine a straight line passing through your body and a string pulling your head up. 

Best Upper Back Stretches 

Want to learn the best back stretching exercises that target your thoracic spine? Moves that stretch your upper back are also good for reducing pain in your neck and shoulders since they’re all connected. If you want to do something about your upper back pain, we’ve listed some amazing stretches that can help. 

As always, we like to strongly recommend visiting a stretching coach for better and quicker results. If it’s your first time performing any of these exercises, you want to make sure you’re doing them correctly. Otherwise, you might make your pain worse or even accidentally injure yourself. 

We hope you consider trying these stretching exercises out with a professional stretching coach if you’re dealing with upper back pain. 

Sphinx Pose 

Known as a gentle backbend, the sphinx pose strengthens the spine while stretching the chest, lungs, shoulders, and abdomen. Along with the physical benefits, it can also provide plenty of mental ones. The sphinx pose is therapeutic for fatigue and is known to reduce stress and soothe the nervous system. 

Lie facedown with your arms bent at your sides and your palms flat on the floor. A stretching coach will gently guide you into peeling your upper body off the ground so you can feel the arch only in your upper back. Raising one arm while doing this stretch will give you more of a challenge. 

Thread the Needle Pose 

This move opens up your shoulders, neck, arms, chest, and upper back. It also releases tension in the upper back and shoulders while allowing for a slight twist in the spine for better mobility. The thread the needle pose is mentally beneficial since it helps calm and relax the body. 

Starting on all fours, you’ll lift one hand off the ground and reach it under the opposite arm. Your stretch practitioner will ensure your hips are level while your upper body rotates toward the direction you’re reaching. After holding for a few breaths, return to the starting position and stretch the other side. 

Reverse Prayer Pose 

The reverse prayer pose strengthens the arms, wrists, hands, and shoulders. It’s also a great move for improving your posture and spine’s flexibility. This is a calming move, which means performing it will remove stress or anxiety that could also be causing your back pain. 

To do this stretch, you’re going to bring both hands behind your back and press your palms together. You should feel your shoulder blades opening, and your stretching coach will ensure your back is straight the entire time. If you can’t touch your palms, hold your left elbow with your right hand, then switch for an even stretch. 

Low Back Hand Clasp 

The low back hand clasp is similar to the reverse prayer pose, except your arms and elbows are straightened. This will give you more of a stretch in your shoulders and is a great chest opener. 

You’ll bring your hands behind your back with your thumbs pointing down. Clasp your hands and keep them even with your lower back. Your stretch practitioner will guide you in slightly arching your upper back while you squeeze your shoulder blades together gently. 

Experience the Best Back Stretching Exercises 

Pain shouldn’t stop you from living your life. We encourage you to experience the best upper back stretching exercises at Stretch Zone. Our stretch practitioners are trained to target your problem areas and have you feeling better in no time. Book your FREE 30-minute session now. 

Two assisted stretching practitioners stretching their senior clients

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