Thoracic Spine: Definition and What it is

Medically and clinically reviewed by Jonathan Lee, MD and Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT

Thoracic Spine Definition and Meaning

The term "thoracic spine" refers to the middle section of the spine situated between the cervical spine (at the neck) and the lumbar spine (in the low back). The thoracic spine is commonly referred to as the midback. It is composed of 12 vertebrae, labeled T1 to T12. The “T” stands for thoracic.

The thoracic spine provides structural support to the body and offers protection for the spinal cord and internal organs such as the heart and lungs. While the midback may have less range of motion than the cervical spine and lumbar spine regions, it’s doing an important job to protect and support organs at the ribcage, so it needs to be sturdier and less flexible as a result.  

Anatomy of the Thoracic Spine

The thoracic vertebrae are unique because they move with the ribs. Each vertebra in the midback has points that connect with the ribs, forming something known as costovertebral joints. This feature makes the thoracic spine integral to the body's overall structure and stability. The vertebrae increase in size from T1 to T12 (detailed below) in order to support the weight of the upper body.  

  • T1: Located where the cervical spine transitions to the thoracic spine, T1 is the smallest of the thoracic vertebrae.

  • T2-T8: These vertebrae are similar but become progressively larger as they move down the back, supporting more and more weight. They form the main curve of the thoracic spine and provide the structure for the upper back.

  • T9-T12: These are transitional vertebrae leading into the lumbar spine; they’re larger and less constrained by the rib cage.

Common Thoracic Spine Issues

The thoracic spine has a big job — not only does it provide support and stability for the upper body, but it’s also responsible for working with the rib cage to protect and support vital organs, like the heart and lungs. As a result, it’s incredibly durable and resilient with built-in shock absorbers that usually help us manage impact and pressure without pain. Still, certain issues can arise in the thoracic spine that cause upper and middle back pain, including:

  • Herniated discs: This occurs when the center of one (or more) of the flat, round discs that are located between vertebrae in the spine pushes against the outer ring, which can cause pain. However, it’s common to have herniated discs without any discomfort, and a herniated disc in the thoracic region is less common than in the lumbar or cervical areas due to the stability provided by the ribcage. 

  • Scoliosis: This condition causes the spine to curve sideways. When weight is distributed unevenly in your back, it’s possible to have pain throughout the back, including the thoracic spine.

  • Osteoarthritis: It’s very normal for your spine to change as you get older, resulting in osteoarthritis. Forms of inflammatory arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis or ankylosing spondylitis, can also cause pain and stiffness in the middle back. 

Thoracic Spine in Daily Life

The thoracic spine and its connected ribs play a crucial role in breathing. The ribcage expands and contracts with the movement of the thoracic spine, facilitating lung expansion.

Thoracic Spine: A Hinge Health Perspective 

Back pain in the thoracic spine can feel frustrating, upsetting, or even a little hopeless, especially when it persists or interferes with your daily activities. No matter how bad your back pain is, or how long it’s been going on, you can always do something to help improve it. And that usually starts with moving more. Although moving through back pain can be scary and uncomfortable, small changes to your habits can yield huge benefits. 

And no matter what might be causing your back pain, exercises and stretches that focus on the back (and the muscles and ligaments that support it) can help because they’re designed to improve mobility and function. There’s a lot you can do at home to strengthen your back. Or you can work with a physical therapist to help restore function and health so you can improve your quality of life and get back to the activities you enjoy. You can see a physical therapist in person or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via telehealth/video visit.

How Hinge Health Can Help You 

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program. 

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you. 

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. 

Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you. See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.


  1. Casiano, V., & De, N. February 20, 2023. Back Pain. PubMed; StatPearls Publishing. 

  2. Johansson, M. S., Jensen Stochkendahl, M., Hartvigsen, J., Boyle, E., & Cassidy, J. D. (2016). Incidence and prognosis of mid-back pain in the general population: A systematic review. European Journal of Pain, 21(1), 20–28. doi:10.1002/ejp.884

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