Having spent a couple of weeks now on the cervical spine ( the part that comes off of your shoulders and extends to your head) we will now descend to the thoracic region, aka your ribcage.
To best understand the ribcage, we need to look beyond its name. In other languages, the ribcage is referred to as the "rib basket". I prefer to think of it as some type of slinky accordion, as the term " cage" does it no justice whatsoever.
Let's start by looking at its function. What's going on beneath those bones that requires that structure of support? Well, we have three systems that maintain human life nestled in there: respiratory, circulatory, and digestive. Breathing and circulatory basically takes up the top half of your ribcage. Fun fact : your lungs extend all the way up to your top rib. Additionally, you have 3 compartments in your right lung, and two on the left, as the heart occupies the space that would be taken up by that third compartment. In the bottom half of your lungs, separated by a parachute like muscle called the diaphragm, we have the beginning of your digestive system: the stomach, gallbladder, and part of your liver. What do all of these organs have in common? Their proper functioning has to do with volume exchange. Be it air, liquid, or solid, your digestive and respiratory systems are involved day in and day out with intaking various fuels, synthesizing what is helpful from them, and expelling the rest. So it stands to reason that the structure that houses them should be equally able to shape shift.
Hence my distress at our English pronouncement of the rib basket as a cage, as if that benevolent protector of our organs was some type of medieval punishment, as opposed to the springy, resilient scaffolding that grandly holds the organs so crucial to human survival.
Place your hands on the sides of your ribs and exhale. Feel them move in, now inhale and feel them move out. The next time you exhale, push your ribs in even more and notice the additional movement. Now release your hands quickly, and feel the breath surging in to the area that had been compressed. You can do this diagonally, front to back, basically in any direction you could imagine, and your ribcage will respond.
I've included a helpful video on the mechanics of breathing to give you a visual.
Back to your spingy, pliant ribcage. Why does it do that? Well, a lot of that has to do with how it's connected in the front; as opposed to creating a bone on bone joint to allow for thoracic movement, your body made cartilage for the part of the rib that connects to the sternum ( the hard bony place you feel in the center of your chest). Cartilage is essentially connective tissue in one of its sturdiest forms. You can feel it in your earlobes, and on the squishy tip of your nose. When doing double duty for your ribs, it arguably forms two joints: one at the heart line ( front diagonals on each side) and one at the intersection of the sternum. This is very helpful for absorbing impact, as cartilage is more pliant than bones. (Consider the damage a steering wheel could do in an accident if you had stiff bones instead of springy cartilage there.) Additionally, the shape of the ribs themselves allows for pliancy, resembling a curved blade that twists off of the spine and flattens towards the front. The meeting of the spinal column with the ribs is just as ingenious, with the ribs intersecting in to the vertebrae like a zipper, each rib fitting in between the bones of your spine where the fluid discs live, supporting both space and movement.
And then, of course, we have the muscles. Before we go any further, please understand that the only thing that actually separates muscles is a scalpel. Depending on how you "slice" it, you can divide the human muscular system in to 300-800 different muscles ( note that many groups of muscles, such as the hamstrings, have separate groups within that heading, hence the massive range) or you could say that we have a few different muscle sheaths that surround our body, with a huge amount of "pockets" where the connective tissue that surrounds the muscle cells is transformed in to tendons or ligaments before housing another swath of muscle. If we adopt that approach, then we can see that the muscles that make up our chest and upper back at some point transfer in to those that house our abdomen, where the ribs end.
My larger point is, your chest muscles turn in to your abdominal muscles as you head south. So the muscles that connect your neck and arms to your body, that also expand to take in air, and adapt to shape change based on your metabolic actions throughout the day( more on this subject can be found here, where I break down the anatomy of breathing) turn in to the muscles that squeeze out air, liquid, and solids while protecting the rest of our digestive and reproductive systems. But that area is for next week.
So heading back to your chest, if you have restricted movement somewhere in your ribcage, might not not only inhibit your motion but also your digestive and respiratory capabilities.The body can move and breathe in a number of ways, and is eminently adaptable, but it would serve it well to have full command of thoracic range of motion.
So this week, we are going to use a bigger ball. About volleyball size, to work on regaining motion of the rib cage.
Get a bigger ball, and join me.
Finally, as an added bonus, I've included this beautiful video of James Painting freestyling, because there could be no better illustration of chest mobility, and the interconnectedness of our muscle body.
Please note that I do not live in your body, you do. Additionally, I am not a doctor. Please be mindful in your practice, and consult a physician before embarking on any exercise program.
The Visible Body app provided many of the photos used in this blog,
Copyright Domini Anne, 2017