Thoracic back pain is a common ache or discomfort in the area of the middle and upper back. The thoracic region of the spine runs from the base of the neck to the bottom of the chest area that is below the breastbone.
The back has many small bones, muscles, and soft tissues that surround and protect the spinal cord. Nerves also leave the spinal cord in the back. Pain may be caused by stress, strain, or injury to any of these structures, such as:
Rarely, thoracic back pain is associated with more serious problems like an infection in the spine, heart or lung problems, or cancer.
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Damage to the tissue of the back can occur with:
Pain may start after lifting, bending, or twisting your back, but it is usually caused by a buildup of small injuries or irritation rather than a one time movement.
Medical conditions that may increase your chance of thoracic back pain include:
The intensity and duration of the pain will depend on the cause.
Irritation or damage of muscle or soft tissue may cause:
Irritation of the nerves may cause:
Your condition may be a combination of any or all of the symptoms above. The symptoms may occur in intensive bursts or be consistent. It may make daily tasks impossible.
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done, which will include an assessment of the spine and muscles. Your strength, flexibility, sensation, and reflexes may be tested.
Imaging tests may be done if the pain is severe or is not going away as expected. Images of the spine and surrounding structures may be taken with:
Pain due to medical conditions, such as a fracture or arthritis, will be treated by managing the conditions.
In most cases, thoracic back pain will go away after giving the area time to recover. Major treatment, such as surgery, is rarely helpful.
Treatment options include:
For most, absolute rest is not helpful, but 1-2 days of rest may be suggested for severe pain.
Activities that cause pain will be limited or adjusted for a period of time, and then gradually resumed as soon as possible. Recovery time is often shorter for those who stay reasonably active.
Medications may be recommended to help manage discomfort such as:
Physical therapy may be recommended for pain that is limiting daily function or pain that is recurring. A therapist can provide stretching and strengthening exercises to help regain muscular and postural balance. Instruction may also be provided on irritating factors like sitting posture or lifting techniques.
Therapy may also include heat, cold, massage, or ultrasound treatments for more immediate pain relief.
Alternative treatments may help ease tension or pain while your back heals. Options that have shown promise for some with back pain include:
To help reduce your chance of thoracic back pain:
American Pain Society
Ortho Info—American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
Back Care Canada—Canadian Spine Society
Canadian Pain Society
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Alternative treatments for upper back pain. Spine Universe website. Available at: http://www.spineuniverse.com/conditions/back-pain/upper-back-pain/alternative-treatments-upper-back-pain. Updated July 4, 2017. Accessed February 9, 2018.
Evaluation of neck and back pain. The Merck Manual Professional Edition website. Available at: http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/musculoskeletal_and_connective_tissue_disorders/neck_and_back_pain/evaluation_of_neck_and_back_pain.html. Updated February 2017. Accessed February 9, 2018.
Examination of the spine. Patient UK website. Available at: http://www.patient.co.uk/doctor/examination-of-the-spine. Updated August 21, 2014. Accessed February 9, 2018.
Peh W; Image-guided facet joint injection. Biomed Imaging Interv J. 2011;7(1):e4.
Thoracic back pain. Patient UK website. Available at: http://www.patient.co.uk/doctor/thoracic-back-pain. Updated September 29, 2016. Accessed February 9, 2018.
Last reviewed March 2018 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Warren A. Bodine, DO, CAQSM Last Updated: 2/29/2016