Thoracic vertebrae

The 12 thoracic vertebrae are slightly different from their counterparts in the cervical (upper) spine and lumbar (lower) spine in design and structure. This is because the thoracic spine has one main job: to support the rib cage. Facets in the bone structure facilitate this support function by allowing the heads of the ribs to connect with the vertebrae in the first 10 thoracic levels.

As a result of this stability, spinal deterioration at the thoracic level is far less common than at the other more flexible segments of the spine.

Thoracic vertebrae: the basics

The spine is made up of five segments:

  • Cervical spine (neck)
  • Thoracic spine (upper and middle back)
  • Lumbar spine (lower back)
  • Sacral spine (lower back)
  • Coccyx (tailbone)

Together, these segments form an S-shaped structure that provides our bodies with the strength to walk upright, supports most of the body’s weight and allows for motion and flexibility. However, while the thoracic spine offers a measure of flexibility in the middle back, its main function is to provide a stable base for the rib cage — which protects the internal organs in the torso.

You can read more about each thoracic vertebra on the following pages:

The thoracic vertebrae get their strength and stability from two places:

  • Discs. These rubbery pads rest between each vertebra and prevent the bones from grinding together. Discs act as shock absorbers for the spine and bear much of the stress of supporting the rib cage.
  • Facet joints. These joints connect the thoracic vertebrae to one another and to the ribs. Coated in cartilage, facet joints allow for hinging and pivoting while maintaining a solid bond. In the thoracic spine, these joints also limit forward motion, further stabilizing the thoracic segment.

The discs and facet joints are also common sites for spine deterioration, which often leads to nerve compression and painful symptoms. While this does not occur at the thoracic level as frequently as the more flexible lumbar or cervical spine segments, the middle back is still prone to damage, especially from traumatic injuries such as a car accident.

Laser Spine Institute

If you are experiencing pain in the upper or middle back, contact Laser Spine Institute. Conservative treatment options are often effective for thoracic spine conditions, but surgery can become a serious consideration if you and your doctor have decided that other therapies have been exhausted without finding the relief necessary for a good quality of life. The board-certified surgeons+ at Laser Spine Institute can perform minimally invasive spine surgery that is an outpatient alternative to traditional open back procedures.

We can perform a free MRI review* and determine if you may be a candidate for one of our procedures.