The thoracic spine is located in the upper back, connecting the lower back and legs with the upper extremities and neck. Like the rest of our spine, the thoracic spine is designed with a characteristic curve. It forms the middle of our s-shaped spine and plays a critical role in keeping our upper body balanced over our lower extremities.
The function of our thoracic spine has ripple effects throughout our musculoskeletal system. An exaggerated thoracic curve (think hunchback) limits the movement of the torso, shoulders, and neck, and puts extra stress on nearby joints and muscles, increasing the likelihood of pain and injury. Lower back pain, neck pain, shoulder and hip problems, and headaches have all been linked to excessive curvature of the thoracic spine.
With the help of the ribs, the thoracic spine forms a protective cage around the vital organs that sit inside the chest, specifically the lungs and the heart. It goes without saying that the heart’s beat and the breath’s movement through the lungs are essential to life. However many people don’t consider the critical role that the thoracic spine and surrounding muscles play in breathing.
Inhalation is an active process powered by the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a muscle that sits at the bottom of the rib cage, spanning from the spine to the sternum and encircling the bottom of the ribs. When the diaphragm is relaxed, it rests in a dome-shape, similar to an umbrella opening up into the chest cavity. When the diaphragm contracts, it flattens out, pulling the ribs down and out, and expanding the amount of space inside the chest cavity. This expansion pulls oxygen into the lungs.
As the diaphragm relaxes and returns to its resting dome-shape, the size of the chest cavity decreases, forcing air out of the lungs. This rhythmic muscle activity is responsible for the critical actions of breathing – inhalation and exhalation.
With an aligned and balanced musculoskeletal system, the diaphragm expands the lungs fully with each breath, maximizing the amount of oxygen that can be consumed. Deviations from our musculoskeletal blueprint can compromise our ability to take a full breath. Changes in the curve of the thoracic spine can be particularly impactful given its central location within the chest cavity.
As the thoracic spine hunches forward, the position of the rib cage changes and the diaphragms’ ability to expand the chest cavity becomes compromised. The body recognizes the importance of breathing and often turns to the muscles around the neck and back to help expand the lungs. This resourceful adaptation helps, but it does so at the expense of optimal, efficient function.
Even small decreases in the amount of oxygen the body consumes with each breath can have a significant impact on the overall health of the body, not to mention the extra energy expenditure that can pull resources away from other essential processes like digestion and cell repair.
There is little question that breathing well is paramount to health and longevity. Given its central role in the task, a balanced musculoskeletal system is also essential, and we can impact the function of our muscles and the position of our bones and joints. Doing so will not only help us breathing better, but it will keep us feeling and moving better as well! Contact The Egoscue Method today!