The Stem of Aplomb – Part Two: The Thoracic Spine

IMAGE The thorasic spine viewed from the side and the back. IMAGEThe middle of your back is a section of the vertebral column called the thoracic spine.

Structure:

The vertebrae of the thoracic spine are labeled T1-T12 and make up the middle section of the spinal column. Much like their counterparts in the Cervical spine, each vertebra consists of a round, flat body and hollow vertebral foramen (where the spinal cord passes), surrounded by a spinous process and two transverse processes. The transverse processes of the thoracic spine articulate with the ribs, completing the thoracic cage that surrounds the lungs and heart. The curve is convex, forming the arch of the upper back that is referred to as kyphosis.

 

IMAGE Illustration of the thorasic vertebrae and its features viewed from the side and from overhead. IMAGE

More on kyphosis:

IMAGE Illustration of a man with a normal spine and with a kyphotic (rounded or hunched) spine. IMAGE

This term can also be used to describe a pathological condition in which the thoracic curve is overly pronounced.  A person with this condition will appear to have a “hunchback”.  While it is much more common to see this in older people, kyphosis can develop in youth and young adults as a result of excessive slouching.

It is much more likely to be corrected in young people, and there is a bit of research that suggests that dance training can restore an average curve of the thoracic spine (Alricsson & Warner, 2004).  This is perhaps on account of the “dancer’s stance” and continual lengthening of the spine that is characteristic of dance training.

Function:

Of all the spinal sections, the thoracic vertebrae are least capable of movement, however it is exceedingly important to the movements of dance. Flexion and extension are possible, although most individuals have limited flexibility in this regard. Here’s another instance in which the natural selection of dancers and the inherent nature of our training yields a higher degree of flexibility (Nilsson et. al, 1993).

The thoracic spine is also responsible for lateral movements (side-to-side) and twisting. These, again, are movements that are reliant on the degree of flexibility in the dancer. To really get an idea of your movement capability in the thoracic spine, get out your white jazz oxfords and perform some rib isolations. There are a lot of muscles at work here, including the groups of intertransverse, interspinalis, and transversospinalis muscles, as well as iliocostalis thoracis and longissimus thoracis, all of which assist in side bending, rotation, and extension of the upper back.  Think arabesques, combrés, and épaulment – movements that are possible with this complex system of small muscles, and are supported by the large, fan-like latissimus dorsi and the upper abdominals.

IMAGE Diagram illustrating the given thoracic stretch and strengthening exercise. IMAGEStretch and strengthen:

Try this exercise to increase the flexibility and strength of your thoracic spine:

  • Lay on your stomach with your hands under your shoulders
  • Push up on to your hands, lifting your chest off the ground (note: be sure to protect your lower back by lifting the abdominals and avoiding overextension)
  • Repeat three times, holding for about 60 seconds, then on the third time try and lift the upper body without your hands on the ground.
  • Try different arm positions: second, fifth en haut, “winged” behind you, hands behind head, etc. Some are more challenging than others.

Stay turned for part 3 of The Stem of Aplomb, where we will talk about the lumbar spine, intervertebral discs, and injuries to the tailbone.

References:

  • Alricsson, M. & Werner, S. (2004). The effect of pre-season dance training on physical indices and back pain in elite cross-country skiers: a prospective controlled intervention study. Br J Sports Med 38, 148-153.
  • Calais-Germain, B. (1993). Anatomy of Movement. Seattle: Eastland Press.
  • Grieg, V. (1994). Inside Ballet Technique: Separating Anatomical Fact from Fiction in the Ballet Class. Hightstown, NJ: Princeton Book Company.
  • Marieb, E.N. (2003). Human Anatomy and Physiology, sixth edition. Benjamin Cummings. (8th Edition found here)
  • Nilsson, C., Wykman, A. & Leanderson, J. (1993). Spinal sagittal mobility and joint laxity in young ballet dancers: a comparative study between first-year students at the Swedish Ballet School and a control group. Knee Surg Sports Traumatol Arthrosc 1, 206-208.

Lauren Warnecke

Lauren Warnecke

Dance writer, educator at Art Intercepts
Lauren Warnecke is a dance writer based in Chicago, IL, and is a contributing author at 4dancers.org, danceadvantage.net, Windy City Times, and SeeChicagoDance.com. In 2009 Lauren created Art Intercepts, a blog for dance-based discourse that incorporates dance and movement research, editorial commentary, and critical reviews. She is a full-time faculty member at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Lauren Warnecke
Lauren Warnecke
Lauren Warnecke

Comments

  1. Great article!.I noticed that this area waas really tired at first. But, I am gaining flexibility ,even in my 50s. I always loved the cobra type move you show for strengthening the thoracic region. I used to do this before yoga, observing babies do baby pushups on their tummies is preparing the needed curvature of spine, in order to crawl and hold their head up. Are there any suggestions for a super straight posture? I have no visible arch of lumbar region. It forces me to use a frontward chest extension .in order to make unduating moves more obvious. It may be inherited trait, I have noticed that north american indian tribes I descend from all have more straight appearance in lumbar, I was curious if you encounter this in students and do we just have to adapt our moves and are their any moves to develop more curvature. It is great for equine sports, since I do have great posture, but even years of yoga have helped, but unable to do some moves by the book, and make them safe. This article on thoracic spine is great, because doing these exercises during yoga has gained me 2″ of height since after age of 40. I am living proof that we do have control over a lot of things, when it comes to our bodies. Can’t wait for part 3, thanks again for great review of the back structure, best wishes,gypsy,also , may i share your link on blog. Not taking credit, just share directions to this article

    • Hi gypsy!

      Just wanted to jump in and let you know that sharing a link to the article (and even an excerpt) on your blog is perfectly acceptable blog etiquette and most appreciated :) You may also want to mention Lauren’s site and blog, found at http://www.artintercepts.org.

      Thanks for your comment (sorry it got caught in the filter and didn’t appear until I realized and approved it). I’ll let Lauren address your other questions.

    • Hi Gypsy,
      I agree with Nichelle – mentions are the best way that we online writers have to increase our audience… so thank you!

      I’ll be covering the lumbar spine in part 3, but I’ll give you a sneak peak to address some of your questions. Generally speaking, every person has a certain degree of curve in the lower spine, but the degree of the curve varies. A spine that appears totally straight to the naked eye still curves, since the curvature is dependent on the stacking of vertebral bodies, which is too deep in the body to see. Additionally, different body types might also accentuate the appearance of a curve, or lack thereof. For example, the shape of the backside can change the appearance of the lumbar curve…. to be blunt, people with bigger bottoms often look to have a swayed back….

      I don’t have the knowledge to comment on cultural or genetic trends, but my educated guess is that if you are limited in certain movements is has more to do with the flexibility of the muscles in your lower back than with the actual structure of your lumbar curve. Keep up with the flexibility exercises and be sure to always engage the abdominals and not push it too far. Good luck and keep me posted!

      Best,
      Lauren

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