The Thoracic Spine & It’s Function

Roles & Purposes

The spine’s ‘middle column’ has 12 vertebrae, neatly stacked on top of each other; numbered 1 through 12.   The T-Spine foundation lies predominantly in it’s ability to support the neck, the rib cage and invariably the organs within it, soft tissues, numerous flexible joints, and an abundance of nerves and blood vessels.

The T-Spine’s most important roles include the following:

  • ‘Protect this Spinal-cord’.  The spinal cord is your true ‘Under Armour’.  It is both an extension of your cerebral cortex (your Brain), and the most critical bundle of nerves in your body.  It pulsates and propagates an intense electrical signals throughout your body, sending packets of information throughout your body, giving you complete function and life!  It’s path courses down from the base of the skull, all the way down through the spinal column, branching off in the lumbar region into small nerve bundles that extend down to the tips of your toes.
  • Rib Cage Support. The rib cage creates the thoracic cavity, which protects vital organs such as your heart, lungs, liver, pancreas, stomach, and gall bladder.  The rib cage is fully supported by the T-Spine.

While the upper column (cervical/neck region) and lower column (lumbar/pelvic region) of the spine are designed for mobility, the T-Spine functions more as a stabilizer, or transducer of forces.

T-Spine Movement & Motion

True movement and motion in the T-Spine vary considerably at individual vertebral levels. Bending forward and backwards are it’s primary motions, with rotation being it’s second major function.  As the T-Spine approaches your buttocks, or the lower column (the lumbar region), you begin to sacrifice rotation, and gain more stability, especially since the ribs stop at T9-10 in most individuals.

Common Causes of T-Spine Pain

Upper back pain is not normal or healthy. Although common, there are much more severe underlying issues typically causing the T-Spine to ‘exhibit’ pain.  Typically the underlying pain is due to one of the following:

  • Structural issues. Upper back pain is most commonly caused by structural issues in the vertebral column, and the alignment of the column irritation or tension, also called myofascial pain. The cause may be an acute injury such as a car crash, a fall from a large height, a sports injury, or from chronic poor posture at work, or in daily life (hunching over a computer, awkward positions bent over a car while wrenching, dental hygenists leaning over patients, mothers carrying their children, etc.).  These alignment injuries need to be corrected immediately after injury, or excessive wear and tear on your joints will rapidly accumulate over time, causing irritation on the joints, the vessels and the nerves.  Once compromised, the nerves lose function and life, affecting everything that nerve touches, including your organs.
  • Muscular problems.Spasms causing pain in the T-Spine are indirectly caused by structural issues, subsequently causing muscle irritation or tension, also called myofascial pain.  Externally, we call this poor posture (such as forward head posture), rounded shoulders, or any type of irritation of the large back and shoulder muscles, including muscle strain or sprain.

The Shoulder Blades

The shoulder girdle attaches to the scapula (the shoulder blade) and the back of the rib cage by large muscles.  Especially with structural issues (poor posture) these muscles are prone to developing spasms, knots, strains or tightness that can be painful and difficult to alleviate.  If the underlying structural issues are not addressed, muscular irritation in the upper back will continue to plague the individual.  Occasionally the pain is truly an issue of de-conditioning or repetitive overuse.

  • Joint dysfunction. Spinal joints can elicit pain in various ways.  When torn, cartilage and tissue degeneration can develop in the facet joints.   These are important joints that connect vertebrae together, giving the spinal column support.  Specifically in the T-Spine, ribs can become misaligned or displaced from the spinal column.   When this occurs, disc degeneration typically begins to occur due to improper wear and tear combined with facet joint degeneration, leading to osteoarthritis of multiple regions of the individual vertebrae, and the spinal column itself.

Various other pain generating problems can occur in the T-spine, such as a herniated disc, spinal canal stenosis, other types of arthritis, and even compression fractures, whether from trauma or from a disease process such as osteoporosis.

When pain in the T-Spine becomes bad enough to limit activities, it may feel like a sharp, burning pain localized to one spot that you ‘just can’t get rid of’.  These issues have typically been there a long time, and are structurally based problems.   A general feeling of achiness can also flare up, and if it spreads to the shoulder, neck, or elsewhere, or causes issues of numbness and tingling in the shoulder, arms, or hands and wrists, you’ve let the problem go far too long.  By this point, you’ve got a much worsened problem on your hands.