How (and Why) To Protect Your Thoracic Vertebrae

November 27, 2018

Several women partaking in group exercise and stretch their backs
Thoracic vertebrae function is key to breathing easily and maintaining posture.

Several women partaking in group exercise and stretch their backs

Kyleigh Roessner RN-BSN

There's a reason why someone who is essential to a project is called the "backbone." It's an essential part of everything we do, and having a strong and healthy backbone, or spine, can greatly affect our quality of life.

Keeping your backbone in the best shape possible requires a better understanding of the different vertebrae that comprise your spinal bone structure. The thoracic vertebrae function as important players in maintaining the overall health of the spine. Let's look at the important characteristics of these twelve stacked bones in the middle of your back.

Thoracic Region

The thoracic vertebrae are part of the thoracic or chest cavity. As Spine-Health explains, this is the largest part of the spine, beginning at the base of the neck and ending at the end of the rib cage. There are exactly 12 thoracic vertebrae (named T1 through T12), and each has facets, or smooth faces on the bone, that connect with the ribs on both sides. Rooted in these vertebrae are the thoracic spinal nerves, which branch into the spinal cord.

Function

Because these vertebrae are connected to the ribs, their function is important in providing protection to the sensitive organs, such as the heart and lungs, protected by the rib cage. The joints between the ribs and vertebrae need to be able to flex slightly to allow the rib cage to expand and contract with the lungs for breathing.

Joshua Waxenbaum and Bennett Futterman explain in their book, "Anatomy, Back, Thoracic Vertebrae," how the thoracic vertebrae have good rotational ability, meaning you can easily turn left or right. They do, however, have very limited ability to flex (think about how you can only curl into a ball so far), which protects your organs and keeps them from getting compressed.

Of course, like all bones of the spine, the thoracic vertebrae function as a protective shield around the spinal cord nerves that travel through it — specifically the thoracic spinal nerves in this area. In these vertebrae, however, the hole that the spinal cord travels through is relatively narrow, meaning there is greater potential for injury to these nerves.

Thoracic Spine Injury

Because of its unique location, structure and rigidity, the thoracic area of the spine doesn't usually sustain fracture unless there is significant trauma to the area. However, according to Mayfield Brain & Health, the vertebrae in the thoracolumbar section (the area where the last two vertebrae in the thoracic region connect to the first lumbar vertebra) sustain 64 percent of all spinal injuries. T12, the last thoracic vertebra, is the most likely to be fractured.

Thoracic spine injury is most often caused by trauma. Fractures can also occur as a result of certain conditions, such as osteoporosis, that weaken the bones of the spine.

Protecting Your Thoracic Spine

You can take precautionary steps to reduce your changes of experiencing a thoracic spine injury. According to the Mayo Clinic, these are some of the most important general safety precautions to follow for prevention:

  • Wear your seat belt.
  • Drive safely.
  • Engage in sports safely and wear the appropriate safety gear.
  • Avoid diving in pools that are too shallow.
  • Install nonslip materials and handrails in your bathroom or other slippery areas.

You can also decrease your risk of developing osteoporosis by quitting smoking, engaging in weight-bearing exercise, such as brisk walking or careful weight training, and by talking to your doctor about calcium and vitamin D supplements, according to the National Library of Health.

Other common-sense practices, such as correcting posture, strengthening muscles that support the spine and developing flexibility, can also be helpful in maintaining your spine health.

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