The thoracic spine refers to the middle and upper areas of the back, extending from the base of the cervical spine and extending about 5 inches below the bottom of the shoulder blades where it connects to the lumbar spine. The ribs that connect to the thoracic spine, which contains 12 vertebrae, protect a number of vital organs.
Pain in the thoracic area can be caused by tight muscles, joint dysfunction, arthritis and degenerative disc disease. Poor posture, sitting (especially hunched or leaning forward) for long periods of time at a desk or behind the wheel, and long periods of immobility can contribute to pain or discomfort. Compared to the upper and lower spine, the thoracic area's mobility is limited, which makes it more prone to problems. Doing the right exercises can correct this.
The airplane posture stretches and strengthens the scapular muscles in the thoracic area.
To perform: Lie on the floor face down with your feet pointed toward each other. Stretch out your arms at 90 degree angles with your palms facing down. Lift your head, shoulders, arms and upper back off the floor. Once you've achieved lift-off, lift your arms upward toward the sky.
Shoulder Blade Retraction
Shoulder blade retractions strengthens the rhomboid muscles that allow the shoulder blades to retract. They also work the trapezius muscles that run from your neck to the bottom of your shoulder blades. Shoulder blade retractions can be done sitting or standing several times a day.
To perform: Drop your arms to your sides. Take a deep breath and exhale. Now retract your shoulders as if you're aiming to make them touch. Hold the position for at least 5 seconds and release.
The Tennis Ball Treatment
Massage is one way to unfreeze your thoracic spine, but if that's not convenient, here's a way to massage your own back. The International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy recommends using electrical tape to fuse 2 tennis balls together and using them to perform mini-crunches and supine arm circles.
To Perform: Lie on your back with your arms crossed over your chest so that your scapulae are pulled outward. The two tennis balls should be placed horizontally across your thoracic spine at the point you want to mobilize -- the groove between the two balls centered at your spinal column. Raise your shoulders off the ground for 3 seconds, then lower yourself back to the floor. Do two or three sets of 15 reps.
Supine Arm Circles
Place the two tennis balls lengthwise against the spine at a point of discomfort, lying face up on the floor. Extend your arms straight up so they're perpendicular to your body. Next, rotate your shoulder either clockwise or counterclockwise direction, tracing small circles with your arms. Do two to three sets of 30 to 60 second rounds in both directions.