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Unlocking the Thoracic Spine: Exercises for Shoulder Pain Relief

Back Pain

One of the most common orthopedic conditions experienced by the general public is shoulder pain. This is a common problem, and there are many different reasons why it can happen. Shoulder pain causes include overuse of the shoulder muscles or stretching them too far or from issues related to your posture and daily routine. Its ubiquity in the clinical setting typically results in a diagnosis of impingement syndrome or rotator cuff pathology. Eventually, this may spiral into a lifetime of foam-rolling, lacrosse balls, and massage guns to treat some if not all the rotator cuff muscles.  

If shoulder pain sounds too familiar, then it’s time to stop focusing on the site of pain and start attacking the source of your discomfort with special treatments and exercises designed to maintain a healthy thoracic spine.  

What Is the Thoracic Spine?

What Is the Thoracic Spine?

Something you may not have thought about is how tightness in your thoracic spine can also contribute to shoulder pain, and it’s an issue that professionals see many patients struggling with as well.

To understand the thoracic spine, we need a quick lesson on shoulder anatomy. The shoulder girdle includes the humerus (arm bone), four rotator cuff muscles, and the scapula (the shoulder blade), which sits on a section of the spine known as the thoracic spine (T-spine). This complex system of shoulder bones and muscles works cohesively to achieve many of our daily movements. And it is this intricate relationship between the T-spine and shoulder girdle where most of our problems lie.

To be more precise, the T-spine is located between your neck and your lower back. It consists of 12 vertebrae and 12 sets of ribs. Anatomically and biomechanically speaking, the T-spine is designed to be the most mobile section of your entire spine. This is because it houses the rib cage and lungs and it provides a concave surface for the shoulder blade to glide on.

How Does the T-Spine Affect Shoulder Muscle Pain?

Thoracic Spine

The T-spine was designed to be able to bend, flex, extend and rotate to varying degrees. However, these motions get diminished over time from misuse and sedentary postural demands. This loss of movement leads to compensations at the level of the shoulder and rotator cuff. Which damages the ligaments and muscles of the shoulder leading to pain and further issues. 

In other words, if you want to increase your shoulder flexibility and decrease the likelihood of future injury, start at the T-spine and work your way out. When there is a loss in T-spine mobility and the shoulder blade must alter its path of movement, it will be detrimental to the muscle in the area.

T-Spine Exercises for Shoulder Pain Relief

Every exercise or movement that involves the shoulder complex should incorporate some sort of flexion, extension, and rotational warm-up of the thoracic spine. Some of our personal favourites include:

Cat and Cow Variations: These are good if you have an achy back, stiff back muscles, tense shoulders, or a tight neck. These are basic but effective stretches that may also double as a warm-up for your spine before just about any form of exercise.

Extension Over a Foam RollerThis essential thoracic exercise is specifically designed to help maintain thoracic mobility. Practising this foam roller spine extension stretch can help improve posture and avoid unsightly rounded shoulders, which often lead to uncomfortable back pain and injuries. 

Kneeling Thoracic Rotations: This exercise is a must for anyone looking to enhance thoracic spine mobility. It is recommended for people with marked asymmetry or those participating in activities that require sharp rotational movements. Consider using this exercise as part of a warm-up routine or as part of a complete corrective treatment.

Open Book MobilizationThis stretch targets the mechanics of other body parts in the region for complete support. The Open Book stretch is designed to relieve shoulder tension in the neck and mid-back by improving thoracic rotation specifically, but you will also get a good stretch in your chest and arms.

Contact USA Sports Today for Professional Help

If you are experiencing shoulder or back pain related to the thoracic spine, these exercises are a great way to achieve temporary shoulder pain relief. However, if your condition is not given the proper professional care, it may lead to years of pain and discomfort. That is why at USA Sports Medicine, we have a team of experts to help you achieve long-term success, whether it is for acute pain or recovery from injury or accidents.

To learn more about our services and how we can assist you with your individual case, fill out a contact form or call us at (305) 479-2973.

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Dr. Kevin Mills is a board-certified orthopedic physical therapist (OCS). He holds a Doctor of Physical Therapy Degree from the University of Miami, where he graduated with honors in 2009. Dr. Mills is specialized in advanced physical therapy and manual therapy techniques, as well as the treatment of chronic pain.