Thoracic Back Pain Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments

Medically Reviewed By Daniel Wiznia, MD
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Thoracic back pain may be due to many factors, including injury, or an underlying condition, such as degenerative discs. It can also be due to unhealthy posture. The thoracic spine is the upper region of your spine that corresponds to your chest, called the thorax.

The thoracic spine contains 12 vertebrae. Each of them have a spongy disk to absorb shock when you move. These vertebrae have many muscles and ligaments that keep your spine strong. Upper back pain occurs because of damage to these bones, disks, ligaments, or muscles.

This article will help highlight the key symptoms of thoracic back pain, causes, and the ways you can manage your symptoms.

What are the symptoms of thoracic back pain?

a person is grabbing their back
supersizer/Getty Images

If you experience any of the following featured symptoms, you may have thoracic back pain:

  • Upper back pain: This pain may radiate around one or both sides of the rib cage. It may get worse with physical exertion or when you breathe deeply.
  • Numbness: You might notice a numb feeling in your chest with thoracic back pain.
  • Changes to the spine’s appearance: Though rare, you might notice visible changes to the outside of the spine, such as lumps.

What causes thoracic back pain?

Thoracic back pain may have various possible causes.

Unhealthy posture

If you spend lots of time hunched over, for example at a desk, wearing a heavy backpack, or using a smartphone, you may experience a slouched posture, which can be unhealthy.

Forward hunched shoulders can put unnecessary stress on your back muscles. This can cause thoracic back pain.

Learn our tips to improve your posture.

Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis gradually weakens bones and can place extra stress on the thoracic spine, causing it to bend. This may be more common in older adults.

Weakened vertebrae will not support you as well, so the surrounding muscles and ligaments take increased pressure. This can lead to damage and pain in these tissues.

Learn about treatments for osteoporosis.

Infection

Despite being rare, it is possible to get an infection in your spine. You may develop a spinal epidural abscess. This is a collection of germs and pus that forms between the vertebrae and your spinal cord. As the abscess grows, it can press against your spine.

Injury and surgery

Accidents that injure your spine, such as car accidents or some types of back surgeries, can cause damage to your upper back.

If one of your vertebrae fracture, this injury may put pressure on a nerve, which can result in pain.

If you experience injury to a rib, it can cause the surrounding nerves to become overly sensitive, also causing thoracic back pain.

Disc degeneration

Degenerative discs happen when a disc in the spine wears down. This may be due to age, tears due to sports, or injury.

The disc cannot repair itself because it does not have a blood supply, so once it experiences damage, it can start to deteriorate.

The symptoms of disc degeneration can be mild or more intense. They can include weakness in the leg muscles or feet and pain that:

  • involves the neck or lower back
  • reaches the hands and arms
  • extends to the thighs and buttocks
  • worsens if you sit, bend, lift, or twist
  • occurs inconsistently

Other causes

There are many other things that can cause you to experience thoracic pain:

  • Disk injury: A herniated disk occurs when a disk in your upper back bulges out from between your vertebrae. This may press on your spinal cord.
  • Shingles: The nerve damage that can occur as a result of a shingles infection can cause neuropathic pain in the rib cage, closely linked to thoracic back pain.

What are the treatments for thoracic back pain?

Clinicians will aim to diagnose the underlying cause of your thoracic back pain and treat that. They will also look to ease your symptoms in the meantime.

There are various medical treatment options available for thoracic back pain, if your doctor deems them necessary. These include:

  • Ice/heat therapy: Applying ice or heat safely can help reduce inflammation in the affected area.
  • Over-the-counter medications: Doctors may recommend pain relievers to help ease thoracic back pain.
  • Prescription medications: Anti-inflammatories, nerve blockers, and relaxants can help reduce thoracic pain.
  • Physical therapy: Exercises to help relieve tension and strengthen and stretch back and shoulder muscles can help increase resilience and flexibility.
  • Chiropractic manipulation: A chiropractor may need to manipulate your spine to realign your nerves and vertebrae within the region of your spine. This can be painful.

Read our guide on ice versus heat for back pain.

What exercises can help with thoracic back pain?

Stretching can help ease thoracic back pain. For example:

  • Butterfly: Place your hands on opposite shoulders, and try to touch your elbows.
  • Upper trapezius: In a seated position, take your right hand and place it on the back of your head while tucking your left between your shoulder blades. Using your right hand, pull your head toward your right shoulder.
  • Child’s Pose: Sit on the floor on all fours. With your big toes touching, spread your knees and sit back on your haunches. Sit back with your arms extended above your head.

Learn more stretches for upper back pain.

When should I see a doctor?

If you have thoracic back pain due to a minor cause, such as postural changes, it often can resolve on its own or with rest and slow stretching and strengthening.

However, if the pain is consistent and severe, go to the emergency room. Also get emergency medical care if you experience bowel and bladder symptoms or weakness in the lower extremities.

A healthcare professional will work to diagnose the cause and recommend some appropriate treatment options.

How do doctors diagnose the cause of thoracic back pain?

Typically, doctors can diagnose the cause of thoracic back pain with a physical examination and asking questions about your symptoms and family history. In a physical examination, healthcare professionals may examine your ability to:

  • stand and walk
  • have a full range of movement
  • respond with reflexes
  • hold strength in your legs
  • detect sensations

If a doctor is unsure of your diagnosis, they may request you undergo an MRI scan so that they can further check for damage to your spine and spinal cord.

How can I prevent thoracic back pain?

There are multiple ways you can prevent thoracic back pain. These include:

  • Regular exercise: Stretching and strengthening your back and shoulder muscles can help support your spine. Building your core muscles will also help support your spine. This becomes more important as you age, or if you do heavy or repetitive movements regularly.
  • Healthy posture: Try to become aware of when you are hunching over. Keep your back straight and shoulders back.
  • Reduce stress: Deep breathing and casual meditation can help. Each day, take a quiet moment to yourself to close your eyes. This helps you stop carrying stress and tension around your shoulders.
  • Maintain a moderate weight: Having more weight can put stress on your back. Eating a balanced diet and getting regular exercise may help you maintain a moderate weight.

Summary

Thoracic back pain can cause pain, stiffness, and numbness in the upper back and rib cage.

Injury to the back, infection, having more weight, and an unhealthy posture can all cause this type of upper back pain. Ways to reduce your symptoms can include heat or ice therapy, physical therapy, or taking medications, for example.

Contact a doctor if you are concerned about your thoracic back pain so they can diagnose the underlying cause and treat it accordingly.

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Medical Reviewer: Daniel Wiznia, MD
Last Review Date: 2022 Nov 30
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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