Updated: Aug 25
I grew up in the north where snow is a common winter treat. The best snow days held undisturbed blankets of snow. As children we would fall backwards onto the fluffy magic. Using our arms and legs to make snow angels was a common activity on a winter day.
That’s what I think of every time I explain this exercise: Arms stretched overhead, making Snow Angels.
Standing with feet shoulder width apart while taking in a deep breath (inhaling) reach overhead with both arms as high as you can, stretching arms backwards a bit. Then as you breathe out (exhaling) lower arms to your side.
Repeat this three times feeling the stretch across your chest; improving your posture and even challenging your balance a bit.
I caution patients to only repeat this stretch three times as so much oxygen being brought into your lungs can make you a little lightheaded and dizzy. This is a great stretch for your morning and evening routine.
This exercise is great because it pulls on the diaphragm, a muscle located at the base of the ribs and the major factor of breathing. This muscle works rhythmically and continually and most of the time involuntarily at the base of the ribs.
The rib cage is made up of twelve ribs connected on the right and the left of your thoracic spine, arching downward, then upward around to the front at your sternum. The lower ribs usually 10, 11, and 12 attach to a card to a cartilaginous band on each side which makes them more mobile. This can accommodate not only pregnancy growth but also abdominal expansion.
The rib cage protects and houses your lungs and heart, as well as adding further structure to your skeleton. Ribs are often injured during falls, sporting events, and motor vehicle accidents. Ribs are often adversely involved during heart and lung surgeries.
Many people are told “nothing you can do about ribs “ but physical therapy can certainly help with rib mobility and pain. Your shoulders are connected to the ribs and sternum by the collar bone (clavicle.) This entire thoracic complex affects the ribs, shoulder, neck, and back. Physical therapy can help this thoracic complex with mobility and pain easement through manual techniques, stretches and strengthening approaches.
Ribs move continually 24/7, 365 days a year. When ribs work well, not a thought is given to them. When ribs are painful, mobility is decreased and lung expansion is decreased. They especially hurt when you sneeze, laugh, cough, or take a deep breath. Ribs that don’t move cause a chain reaction of decrease in how much the collarbones (clavicle,) shoulder and the neck moves. Rib mobility is directly related to lung expansion. We know that as we age and rib mobility decreases as does our lung capacity. A main goal of physical therapy is to skillfully increase the mobility of the ribs to work the chain reaction of increased mobility in the lungs, clavicles, spine, and shoulders.
Small, pain-free rib exercises taught in physical therapy will slowly and progressively increase lung capacity for deeper inhalation and exhalation. Even ribs that sustained injury and even surgery many years ago can improve in its mobility.
Physical therapy can help with the mobility of the ribs. Skilled physical therapist can use muscle energy techniques, strain and counterstrain techniques, and total motion release techniques along with mobility, stretching, and strengthening exercises.
Many patients seeking therapy for neck and shoulder pain and problems have underlying problems with decreased rib mobility. A thorough evaluation from your physical therapist can help assess mobility deficits in the ribs, clavicle, shoulder, and neck.