The T-Spine|One Possible Reason for Upper Body Mobility Issues

Posted on April 12, 2011


I went to a swim meet recently. It was the Masters Swimming State Swim Meet. Tons of adults, some in their 20’s…many in their 40’s and up! All shapes, sizes, and shades of pasty-ness out there kicking butt in their respective events. God bless these people! There was literally all levels of ability, all sizes of body, all out there in their Speedo swimsuit glory! You’ve to appreciate a persons’ efforts to not only do the work to stay fit, but put themselves out there for a swimming competition – since most of us left our swimming days behind somewhere around middle-school.

Whether you swim or not, one thing you have a high likelihood of having in common with these swimmers is upper body mobility issues. These include: neck pain, shoulder pain and mobility decrease, back pain, postural dysfunction. The swimmers issues usually arise from over-use with improper mechanics, while a non-swimmers’ issues generally arises from lack of use. One thing both tend to have in common is a lack of consistency in bodywork to keep optimal function – stretching, myofascial release, movement prep series before activity, corrective exercise during regular workouts.

One area of the body that deserves a fair amount of attention, and usually receives little to none, is the grouping of muscles that envelope the upper torso/shoulder area, collectively called the “T-Spine” – which is the location name of the part of the spinal column that begins just below the neck, and continues down to the lower trunk. Specifically, the T-spine area that gets a lot of abuse is the area where the lattisimus dorsi, serratus anterior, rib intercostals, triceps muscle, & posterior deltoid/rotator cuff complex all cross and overlap in a dizzying network of tissue.


For those that forgot about human anatomy they day they finished their final exam, this area is located by looking at your armpit then sectioning off the area below it down to the lower part of the ribs, forward toward the chest muscles, backward to the back muscles and then up the arm from the armpit onto the back of the arm where the triceps sits. Here, look at this pic: 

Because we tend to think of our bodies as these cavernous beings that have room for everything to move & that it then does move exactly like an anatomy book shows…we can end up negating the value of “regular tune-ups” that need to be done to keep our bodies in good working order. You see, our bodies are not spacious & roomy- everything is smashed in there with absolutely ZERO excess space.

The muscles & fascia all slide over eachother as you move, and when improper motor patterns or over-/ under- use patterns emerge, the smoothness of the sliding tissue becomes like dried jelly on a countertop. It’s gritty, bumpy, rough & if pressing into the muscle, you can feel gravel-ly or knotty tissue in the affected area. Not only does this have the potential to affect your ability to move, to increase your joint degeneration, but it causes pain & dysfunction thus limiting your ability to perform at your best.

The T-spine ends up with “dried jelly” in it for a few reasons:
1) inactivity – arms are down at our sides most of the day & night, thereby requiring little effort from the muscles & fascia that is under the arm
2) improper movement – if using the body for performance, it only takes 1 section of too-tight or too-weak muscle to cause the fascia & muscle tissues to move improperly–>This starts to create irritation/inflammation which over time, screws up the kinetic chain of our body – and since everything is linked together, an issue that arises in the T-spine musculature, could result in pain being felt in the neck. What would seem totally unrelated, could actually be directly linked to one another.

You see, the fascia that envelopes all of our muscle & organs (think: white stuff you can pull off a chicken breast) has a section that runs from the ribs/pecs region around the back of the shoulder & attaches at the base of the skull. Pull on the bottom section, and the top section gets tugged too. Imagine the bottom section all knotted up and stuck together. **It’s like trying to move your arms around in a suitcoat that is a size too small – you can move, but you can’t move comfortably, will have to alter the way you lift your arms because the coat is keeping you ‘stuck’, and thus other muscles that shouldn’t have to work harder, will have to now in order to support the movement. Hello injury & accelerated breakdown!**

What you can do: (in general terms, each person is unique with what they bring to the table)
1) Myofascial Release: foam rollers, sticks, rolling pins, baseballs – basically any hard object can serve the purpose of breaking up the knotty tissues along the T-spine area; should be done regularly, the more you do…the more result you get

2) Flexibility: static stretching where you just hold the stretch for a period of time, done post workout, or “movement prep” a new form of dynamic stretching where there is constant movement through the stretch and many other forms of stretching may be effective; put it this way – if you never get up from your desk job and stretch your chest/shoulders/arms out in a doorway or by a wall, then flexibility exercises like the door frame stretch would definitely help you open up your posture.

3) Functional strength training to support the movements you do most in real life: picking up a 30lb kid all day long? you need a strong body. training for an Ironman? you need a strong body. Movements that integrate multiple muscles, your core, postural stabilizers & balance, done via action-appropriate exercises.

When the T-spine muscles are fluid and moving well, not only will the shoulder, neck & trunk have better potential to move better, but the ribs can expand easier, the trunk can turn better, and even the lower body may be able to move better. Because remember!…your muscles & tissues are fully connected in what’s called the ‘kinetic chain’, and when you improve one area of your body, you have a greater chance of improving the function of the rest of your body as well!

image by Tom Fowlks/Getty Images