Importance of Thoracic (Upper Back) Mobility for Office Workers

Why you should care about Thoracic (Upper Back) Mobility

Do you have lower back pain or neck pain?

Shoulder pain when lifting objects overhead?

Or have slumped shoulders when you sit or stand?

You may have poor thoracic spine mobility. The thoracic spine (upper back region) is an important section of the spine, that often loses mobility in populations that are more sedentary.

The spine is made up of five main segments. The reason there are 5 segments, is because each segment of the spine has a different function and role. Click the button below to read more about each section of the spine. 

What is role of the thoracic spine and lumbar spine?

These are the 12 vertebrae that makes up the mid back 

These are the 12 vertebrae that makes up the mid back 

The thoracic spine (mid back) is made up of twelve vertebrate that extend from your shoulders to waist and plays an important role to protect your lungs and heart by attaching to the ribcage. The thoracic spine is made for mobility - to flex, extend and rotate. Since the thoracic spine should be highly mobile, there is also the ability to lose mobility by staying in sedentary positions, or a lack of movement, often caused by the typical posture at an office or sedentary job.

The lumbar spine (low back) is built for stability. The lumbar spine support’s the weight of the body and helps resist excessive rotation. The lumbar spine can be mobile, and flex and extend, but it would much rather remain stabile and help produce power from the hips.

What happens if the thoracic spine is immobile?

If the thoracic spine is immobile, the lumbar spine will pick up the slack and compensate for the lack of movement in the thoracic spine. This can lead to low back pain and fatigue. On the opposite end of the thoracic spine, are the shoulders and neck. A lack of mobility in the thoracic spine can cause problems in the shoulders and neck. A large body of research supports the theory that thoracic spine movement dysfunction is linked to pathologies and pain in the neck, shoulder, and elbow (Heneghan et al, 2017).

The thoracic spine also plays an important role in assisting with the movement of the neck. The thoracic spine contributes 33% of neck flexion movements and 21% of neck rotation. Therefore a lack of movement in the thoracic spine can contribute to the development of pain in the neck.     

The thoracic spine and sitting?

Sedentary lifestyles affect a significant proportion of the population. Prolonged sitting (a form of sedentary behaviour) has progressively become the norm in the workplace, transportation and modern technology. Recent research has found an association between prolonged sitting (> 8 hours a day) and increased neck, shoulder and low back pain.  

Often spending all day sitting causes office workers to hunch forward, keep their head forward, and sit with a flexed upper back. Staying in a hunched over position for several hours per day reduces mobility in the thoracic spine.

“Research has found a relationship with increased sitting time of over 7 hours per day, and activity of less than 150 minutes per week, with reduced thoracic (upper back) mobility."
Researchers found that individuals who are sedentary (> 7 hours sitting per day) had less thoracic mobility than, low activity individuals (4-7 hours sitting per day) and even less that physically active individuals.                                                                                                            

If you are experining low back pain, neck pain or shoulder pain, a contributing factor to your pain could be a lack of mobility in the mid back. Physical activity promotes joint and soft tissue mobility. Working on improve thoracic spine mobility can help improve posture, reduce pain and help combat the negative health effects of spending long hours of the day sitting.

Benefits of Thoracic Spine Mobility

  • A lack of kyphosis (slumped shoulders)

  • Healthier shoulder’s

  • Reduced neck and low back pain

  • Increased lung volume

How to improve thoracic spine mobility?

So how exactly do you make your mid back, less stiff and have greater range of motion?

Check out the video below to learn more about our top three thoracic mobility exercises. Try them out at work to take breaks from sitting in a static position. If you working at a sedentary job, it is important to take movement breaks as often as possible.

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Tsang SM, Szeto GP, Lee RY. Normal kinematics of the neck: the interplay between the cervical and thoracic spines. Man Ther 2013;18:431–7.