How important is Movement of the Thoracic Cage ?

Every cell in our body requires oxygen to function and perform its internal processes, the self-regulating mechanisms that keep the body running in a state of equilibrium known as homeostasis. Oxygen enters the bloodstream via breathing. The pleural sacs of our lungs are the site where the exchange of carbon dioxide for oxygen takes place. Our lungs are a vital and delicate structure, protected by our rib cage, which is held in place and attached to the vertebrae of our thoracic spine.

With the attaching ribs, it makes movement through the thoracic spine more restricted than in the lumbar or cervical section which are less encumbered to flex, forward or laterally, extend and rotate. Movement is crucial because the less we move the stiffer the structures get, the tissues get stuck together, compacted, which doesn’t leave much space for blood flow to penetrate the area. It creates little patches of unhealthy musculature, which we notice as pain / soreness / tension. This tightness throughout the chest and upper back begins to restrict breathing as the rib cage has to expand against the pressure of a constricting band of tight fascia / musculature. Less oxygen intake in the circulation can lead to symptoms such as a headache or fatigue.

Have you ever noticed how people slump forward when they sit at a desk? This is partly due to their concentration being focused on whatever they are working on and they are not aware of their body and how long it has been in one position for. What happens when people are sitting this way for long periods of the day, repeatedly? With the arms held in place at the front of your body, the chest is closed with the upper back under a constant pull forwards. Not only does this inhibit the expansion of the ribcage for breathing, your neural feedback systems become so used to this posture from habitual exposure that they can “reset” that configuration of muscle lengths as “normal” (to you).

What can massage do to help? We work on opening the muscles of your chest from the sternum (breast bone) out to the tendons on the head of your humerus (upper arm bone). Applying pressure throughout the upper back; from your vertebrae to the scapulas (shoulder blades), has the added advantage of loosening your neck by freeing the attachments points where the muscles throughout your neck are anchored. Using little friction motions between your ribs can de-stick any intercostal adhesions, which makes it easier for them to expand. Manual therapy can also address any spasms that may be in the diaphragm which is the big muscle underneath your ribs, whose role is to perform breathing. If you are breathing incorrectly using the scalene muscles in your neck to lift the ribcage, your neck is likely to be sore from working overtime instead. Massage works to soften and lengthen taut, irritated muscles. Re / de-tensioning the body to a more neutral state provides the brain with muscle memory of how function feels easier in this state and it is therefore more likely to register when the stresses from our daily lives begin to draw it away from optimum mechanics. Signalling that it might be time for a massage!

With a healthy thoracic spine, the neck is free to turn. The movement of walking can send ripples of movement all the way up through the curves of the spine to the head, which keeps everything limber, an internal massage via exercise, with the tissues sliding easily over one another. Areas of the body that are stuck /locked, mute this effect, so that anything above the congestion, it isn’t receiving the benefits of the same degree of mobilising and circulation.

Sounds like it’s time to free the thoracic spine and breathe easy. Give us a call and experience for yourself what more mobility in your upper body feels like.

Look out for the upcoming article on the mechanisms of breathing and what else it does for us other than supplying us with oxygen…..

Shona Lee
Remedial Massage Therapist
The Osteopathic Centre – Chatswood