Thoracic Vertebrae

Written by Tele Demetrious


Relevant Bony Anatomy

The thoracic vertebrae (of the upper back) are larger than the cervical vertebrae (of the neck) and smaller than the lumbar vertebrae (of the lower back). There are twelve in total (T1 to T12), which together form the thoracic spine. They are numbered from the top of the thoracic spine (T1 – whose spinous process is the most prominent bony landmark just below the base of the neck) to the bottom of the thoracic spine (T12). The 1st, and 9th through to 12th thoracic vertebrae are atypical thoracic vertebrae with unique features (making them more similar to cervical and lumbar vertebrae respectively), whilst T2 to T8 are considered typical thoracic vertebrae and possess similar features.

Typical thoracic vertebrae primarily comprise of a cylindrical / heart shaped body (at the front of the bone) and a vertebral arch (situated directly behind the body), which forms a hole known as the vertebral foramen which, in the thoracic spine, is relatively smaller than it is in the cervical or lumbar regions. Since each vertebrae is situated directly above or below each other, their collective vertebral foramen line up forming the vertebral canal which houses and protects the spinal cord.

Each thoracic vertebrae joins with adjacent vertebrae primarily at the facet joints (located on each side of the spine, towards the back of the spine) and the discs of the thoracic spine (located centrally at the front of the spine) (figure 1). Movements between each adjacent vertebrae are relatively small, but when summated over the entire vertebral column allow considerable mobility.

Anatomy of the Thoracic Vertebrae

Figure 1 – Anatomy of the Thoracic Vertebrae

In the thoracic spine the facet joints are orientated in the coronal plane, which means the primary movements of the thoracic spine are axial rotation and lateral flexion (i.e. twisting and side bending of the spine). Towards the lower thoracic spine the facet joints progressively orientate more into the sagittal plane, similar to the facets of the lumbar spine. This orientation allows for greater flexion / extension movement (i.e. forward / backward bending of the spine) and less axial rotation / lateral flexion movement.

Thoracic vertebrae also have facets on either side of their bodies, which form joints with the heads of the corresponding ribs (known as the costovertebral joints). Each thoracic vertebrae also has various bony prominences, such as the spinous processes (located at the back of the bone) and transverse processes (located at each side of the vertebrae). These bony prominences provide attachment points to the ligaments and muscles of the thoracic spine. In the thoracic spine, the spinous processes are long and slender and orientated obliquely downwards, limiting the movement of spinal extension. The transverse processes also feature facets (except in the 11th and 12th thoracic vertebrae), which form joints with the corresponding ribs (known as the costotransverse joints). Together, the costovertebral and costotransverse joints, allow rotational movement of the ribs, which assists ventilation of the lungs.

Collectively the thoracic vertebrae act to support the head and the neck, protect the spinal cord, allow movement of the thoracic spine, ribs and thoracic cage, and provide attachment points for the muscles and ligaments of the thoracic spine.


The twelve thoracic vertebrae are located in the mid section of the spine (upper back) between the neck and the lower back. They are numbered from the top to bottom – T1 to T12.

Forms Joints With

Major Muscles of the Thoracic Spine

Superficial Layer:

Intermediate Layer:

Deep Layer:

Other Attachments

Related Injuries

  Related injuries

Relevant Physiotherapy Exercises

  Relevant Physiotherapy Exercises

Recommended Reading

  Recommended Reading

Find a Physio

  Find a Physio

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