How the Upper Spine affects the Low Back

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Low back pain is a huge problem in society. It is estimated that 80% of people will experience it at some point.

This number includes athletes, sedentary people, and everyone else in between.

No one is really safe because of the different kinds of ways that the spine can be placed under stress.

A lot of this stress comes from the upper part of the spine.

The vertebrae of the spine are broken up in 3 parts-cervical, thoracic, and lumbar/sacral.


The cervical is the neck, thoracic is the upper back, and lumbar/sacral is our low back and tailbone.

Most pain is found in the low back. This does not mean that the other areas are all well and good, they do not make up the majority.

Today I want to focus on the relationship between the T spine and the lower back.

Each vertebrae in the spine is a separate joint. Each joint allows for a certain amount of flexion, extension, lateral bend, and rotation. Different joints allow for more or less depending on its role.

In general, the low back is a stable segment because the vertebrae do not allow for tons of movement. The thoracic spine allows for a lot more movement, making it mobile.

The thoracic spine is allowed to flex, extend, and rotate much more than the lumbar spine. The hips are also a mobile joint allowing a lot of movement.

Most people will move through their low back to accomplish tasks like picking things off of the ground and turning. When the lumbar spine starts to move too much it will lose its stability.

When the lumbar spine becomes mobile, the t spine will become stable because the body will not stack two mobile joints on top of each other.

The more motion through the low back the more we are wasting the body’s resistance to injury. You only get so many cycles of end range of motion before something bad happens.

Learning to move through the thoracic spine will take the pressure off of the low back and we will be able to move better.

This is especially important for rotational athletes. Hockey players and golfers, for example, make hundreds of rotations per day.

If most of the rotation is coming from the low back then the athlete will be predisposed to injury. I know firsthand that even high level hockey players do not rotate through their t spine naturally.

They usually just don’t know the difference. Other athletes tend to be really bad at rotating. I see this a lot with football players. They play a forward, backward, side to side sport. When asked to rotate it isn’t pretty.

When asked to rotate on the field, in an unexpected situation, then it is only a matter of time before an injury can occur.

Learning to move through the T spine is simple, but not always easy. We must brace the low back and turn through the upper part of the back.

Extension and rotation are the two movements we focus on. Flexion is not an issue in anyone. We have plenty of computers and cell phones to practice thoracic flexion.

A T spine extension on the foam roller is a great movement to incorporate in the warm up. Most people like this movement because they will feel their back crack.

Lay down with the middle of the back on a roller. Hands behind the head and elbows forward. Bring the back of the neck towards the ground.

The key is to keep the butt on the floor and control the movement back.

Rotation is requires a little bit more attention. Any t spine rotation should not be felt in the low back. If so then the exercise is wrong.

Keeping the low back braced and working on rotating out can unlock the t spine and relieve pressure in the low back.

Improving T spine extension and rotation not only improves performance in sports and lifts, it will also help reduce back pain.