You don’t need to be told that back pain is a common phenomenon. No one we’ve ever met hasn’t struggled at least once in their life with a niggle or an ache, and the past two years have cemented back pain as everyone’s most moaned about ailment, with stats suggesting that up to 81% of us are suffering more than ever.
So much of the focus is on our low back – often a result of overarching during exercise or not supporting our back in chairs – or our upper back and rear of our shoulders thanks to slumping at a desk. But what about that big old section in the middle?
Given that the thoracic area is the largest part of your spine, consisting of 12 vertebrae, a huge variety of muscles and attaching to your ribs and shoulders, it’s crucial it gets as much care as the rest of your posterior.
“As an osteopath, I commonly see a lot of mid-thoracic issues,” says Payal Patel from Osteoallies. “A lot of the time we hear patients say that they feel as though they can’t fully breathe properly because of the restriction in that mid-back area.”
What causes mid-back pain?
As there are so many muscle groups in the mid-back, there’s a lot of reason for complaint. These muscles include the rhomboids – between the shoulder blades – which play an important role in stabilising the shoulder blade during upper body movements. Plus, the erector spinae muscles (the iliocostalis, longissimus and spinalis) that stabilise the spine, the intercostal muscles that sit between the ribs and move as breathe in and out and the diaphragm – the primary muscle for breathing.
These muscles can all become tight for a variety of reasons, explains Patel. “Prolonged rounded postures and over development of the front chest muscles (pecs) may result in hunched shoulders, which can cause increased muscular tension and stiffness in the mid-thoracic region,” explains Patel. “This is something osteopaths see very often as a lot of the time our patients are hunched over a desk at a computer for long periods of time.
“Some factors to also consider in the tightening of these muscles and mid-back pain are large breasts and poor fitting bras or regularly performing one-sided sporting activities. Overuse of these muscles, particularly with a weak core, can cause them to fatigue,” Patel adds.
Interestingly, stress can be a huge factor in our mid-back pain. When we’re feeling overwhelmed, our muscles tense and our shoulders rise, but we also change our breathing patterns. “Only breathing into your upper chest can mean that the diaphragm isn’t engaging correctly and can often refer pain to the mid-back area,” explains Patel.
How to ease mid-back pain
“As osteopaths, we look at the whole body holistically. If your mid-back is restricted this will have a knock-on effect on your lower back. Therefore it is very important to get a professional to treat the issue before it progresses or persists and becomes chronic. We also want to rule out any trauma – such as a fracture,” Patel says.
Generally, strengthening your back is important to avoid the slumping posture in the first place – as is maintaining good breathing patterns and low-stress levels (but that’s easier said than done). So when you do need a release, Patel recommends some easy practices.
“I often advise my patients to place a massage ball or just a tennis ball in between their shoulder blades and roll up and down against the wall to really get into those mid-back muscles. It’s such a fab technique as it really does feel like a deep tissue massage and reduces that tension that commonly builds up in between the shoulder blades,” Patel says.
Figure of eight
This can be done easily at your desk when you’re feeling the impact of your rounded shoulders.
- Sit or stand up tall with your head drawn towards the ceiling.
- Interlock your fingers behind your neck and bring your elbows together in front of you, letting your neck fall forwards.
- With your elbows, draw a large ‘8’ in the air in front of you.
A great dynamic stretch for when you’re feeling stiff through the muscles and vertebrae in the mid back.
- Come onto your hands and knees on the floor with your wrists directly under your shoulders and knees under hips.
- Bring your belly into your spine, curl your tailbone under and send your spine to towards the ceiling.
- Slowly curl your head up and begin to arch through the back so your chest is open and back pressing towards the mat.
- Move gently through the two poses to lubricate the spine and muscles.
Like a child’s pose, only keep your bum away from your heels so you can press down between your shoulder blades and into the rib cage.
- Sit on the floor with your shins tucked under your thighs and your bum away from your heels.
- Place your hands down on the floor in front of you and walk them out so your glutes are directly on top of your knees and your chest is close to the floor.
- Press your hands down into the floor and feel the stretch through the middle of your back.
Door frame stretch
This opens out your chest muscles which can take some of the tension off your shoulders and back.
- Stand next to a door frame with your hand placed onto it at chest height and your arm straight out.
- Roll your shoulder back and turn your body away from the door to a point where you feel the stretch through the front of your chest.