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The thoracic spine is an area in the upper middle of the spine that contains 12 vertebrae known as the thoracic vertebrae. These vertebrae are referred to with the initial “T” and a number reflecting their position in the spine, with T-1 being the highest thoracic vertebra and T-12 being the lowest. The size of the vertebrae increases down the back, with the lower thoracic spine being wider than the upper thoracic spine. This area of the spine performs a number of important functions in the body.
The spinal column as a whole provides support to the body, as well as a protective casing for the spinal cord that carries nerve impulses so they can be transmitted to the extremities. In the case of the thoracic spine, the vertebrae provide points of articulation for the ribs. The spinal cord, ribs, and sternum together create a solid cage that protects the contents of the chest. When people fall, are compressed, or are otherwise put in danger, these bones are designed to limit damage to the contents of the chest, keeping the heart and lungs functioning.
In addition to acting as the point of attachment for the ribs, the thoracic spine also provides outlets for a number of nerves. These nerves travel out from underneath individual vertebrae and provide a route for signals from the brain to reach the rest of the body, while input from the body is sent back along the nerves to the brain.
Injuries to the thoracic spine most commonly occur when people fall, are involved in car accidents, or sustain impact wounds to the spine as seen when people are hit from behind. Injuries can include fractures, with compression fractures caused by pressure to the spine being especially common. The thoracic spine can also dislocate in some types of injuries. Damage to the spine can in turn pinch the nerves and may in some cases lead to permanent loss of sensation or paralysis for the patient.
Degenerative conditions can also attack the this part of the spine. Arthritis and other joint conditions may erode the vertebrae and the discs that provide a cushion between vertebrae can become compressed and thin with time. Conditions like scoliosis and kyphosis can involve the thoracic spine.
Diagnosis and treatment of spinal disorders usually requires medical imaging studies to examine the spine. Patients may need braces to correct or support the spine and in some cases surgery is required to fix the vertebrae or discs.