Thoracic (Upper Back) Foam Rolling, Part 2 – Improving Joint Mobility

The start of the previous post was a little bit doom-and-gloom, talking about all the stress that we put on our upper backs. Really. We hammer them with poor posture, uncomfortable seats (and hours in them), tons of screen time, and about a thousand other things. This all can create tension through the soft tissue (muscles and connective tissues), which in turn impacts our joints – it can grind their ability to move well to a grinding halt. Consider that we don’t have much movement in any given joint in our spine to begin with, and this can be a recipe for disaster.

Good news though! As I pointed out last time, the foam roller is a great way to balance out this stiffness – both from a soft tissue and joint perspective. Unlike foam rolling for most other areas of the body, there are two aspects to consider when foam rolling the area around the thoracic spine.

  1. We have muscles in our upper backs that get tight and stretched out.
  2. We have vertebrae in our upper back (our thoracic vertebrae) that get stiff and kinda stuck together.

These two differences require slightly different approaches. We can use the foam roller to help release some of the built-up muscle tension, or we can use it to encourage appropriate movement to come back to the joints in the spine. Remember that we only want to work through our upper back – in anatomy speak, our thoacic spine. The vertebrae in this region are usually stiff when when want them to be mobile, but our lower back and our neck should be left alone! Bonus: the thoracic spine is easy to identify. Stick to spine from the top to bottom of your ribcage, and you’re good! Remember as well, like our soft tissue, there’s only so much help we can give ourselves – beyond a certain point, you need a trained pair of hands to adjust soft tissue and joints. We’ll talk about that in a minute though. In the meantime, let’s look at what we can do for ourselves:

What it does: Improves joint mobility in the joints of the thoracic spine

How to:

Foam Roller Thoracic Extension 1

Foam Roller Thoracic Extension 2

– Sit in front of the foam roller with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor
– Lay back until your back touches the roller (it doesn’t matter where you start) and put your hands behind your head to support your head and neck
– Keep your hips on the floor and relax backward over the roller, like you’re going to let your head touch the ground behind you
– Hold for desired time, then slowly return to start position
– Move roller to a different level of your thoracic spine and repeat

It’s super important to breathe and relax. You can hold this anywhere from thirty seconds to a half hour, though most people will find it pretty intense at first! Take a break if, when, and for a long as you need to, and if you feel in any way unsafe or uncomfortable doing then, stop right away! You may better benefit from seeing a good chiropractor to get things moving more smoothly, since they can make minute adjustments to joint positions, compared to the all-over effect that the foam roller gives (if you’re local to Portland, my go to is Dr. Alicia Smith at Discover Chiropractic).


Disclaimer: This does not constitute medical advice, and not all exercises may be suitable for all people. Please consult your health care professional if you are unsure whether these exercises are right for you. If these exercises increase pain or any other symptoms, please stop immediately and consult your health care professional. For best results, get your doctor, physical therapist, and personal trainer/exercise coach talking for a united approach – as well as your chiropractor and massage therapist if you see these. To find out who I refer to in Beaverton or the rest of the Portland area, please get in touch.