Your Guide to Understanding and Overcoming Mid Back Discomfort
A sharp pain shoots up your mid-back as you reach for something overhead. Or maybe a persistent stiff ache has taken hold of your upper back and shoulders.
If you’ve experienced discomfort like this, you’re not alone. Thoracic back pain affects an estimated 10-15% of people at some point in their lives.
While not as prevalent as lower back pain, thoracic spine issues can still greatly impact one’s daily life. The thoracic region, spanning from the base of your neck to the bottom of your ribcage, enables important mobility in your trunk.
When thoracic structures like discs, facet joints, ligaments or muscles develop problems, pain and stiffness often result.
What Is the Thoracic Spine?
Your spine is composed of multiple regions, each containing vertebrae that are separated by rubbery discs. The thoracic region, also called the upper or middle back, spans from your base of neck to the bottom of your rib cage. It contains 12 vertebrae, labeled T1 to T12, which connect to your ribcage.
This integral part of your skeletal system allows for torso rotation and flexion. The thoracic vertebrae also protect your spinal cord and support your vital organs.
Nerves branching from the thoracic spinal cord transmit sensory information and signals to muscles. Tendons, ligaments, and muscles surround the bony vertebrae, providing stability and facilitating movement.
What Causes Thoracic Back Pain?
From muscle strain to spinal conditions, many factors can contribute to discomfort in your thoracic region:
- Muscle/ligament sprains – Overuse and improper lifting or twisting can overextend the muscles and ligaments around the thoracic area. Sports injuries or accidents can also cause traumatic damage leading to pain.
- Poor posture – Slouching, hunching over computers, or constantly looking down at phones can strain the thoracic spine and surrounding tissues.
- Degenerative spinal conditions – Common age-related issues like spinal stenosis, arthritis, and degenerative disc disease affect the vertebrae and discs, leading to inflammation and nerve compression.
- Compression fractures – Weakened vertebral bones are susceptible to fractures, which cause severe thoracic pain. Women and older adults are most at risk.
- Disk herniation – If an intervertebral disc ruptures, the inner gel can press on spinal nerves.
- Scoliosis – An abnormal sideways spinal curve rotates the thoracic vertebrae.
Other medical conditions like pregnancy, kidney stones, pancreatitis, and even lung problems can sometimes manifest as thoracic back discomfort. Rarely, more serious issues like spinal infections or tumors underlie persistent thoracic pain.
What Are the Symptoms?
- Localized pain in your upper back, shoulder blades or along your spine
- Muscle tightness, spasms, stiffness
- Sharp, stabbing pain made worse with movement, deep breaths
- Dull, aching throb that worsens over time
- Upper back tenderness to the touch
You may also experience reduced range of motion in your thoracic spine. The pain can radiate to your abdomen or ribs if nerves are compressed. Difficulty sleeping comfortably due to back discomfort is also common.
Seeking Care for Your Thoracic Back Pain
Without treatment, ongoing thoracic pain can significantly impact your quality of life. If self-care strategies don’t provide lasting relief within a couple weeks, it’s important to follow up with your healthcare provider. They will examine your back’s range of motion and palpate for areas of tenderness.
Be prepared to describe your pain symptoms in detail – is it localized or does it radiate? Does anything make it better or worse? This helps determine whether the thoracic spine itself is the root issue or if pain is referred from other areas like your shoulder joint or ribs.
Your provider may order imaging tests like X-rays or MRIs to pinpoint spinal abnormalities or nerve compression. Current or past medical conditions will also be considered during diagnosis. Once the cause is determined, appropriate treatment can begin.
Self-Care Strategies for Thoracic Back Pain
Many minor cases of thoracic back pain can be resolved within a few weeks using conservative self-care techniques:
- Apply ice or heat packs to relax muscles.
- Use OTC pain relievers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
- Temporary activity modification when pain flares.
- Gentle thoracic and upper back stretches.
- Postural improvements – roll shoulders back, align neck and head.
- Mattress support for spinal alignment.
- Stress-relief techniques like yoga, tai chi, meditation.
- If smoking, work to quit to speed healing.
While self-care can be effective for minor thoracic pain, it’s still important to consult your doctor if symptoms persist beyond 2-4 weeks. Lingering or worsening pain may indicate an underlying spinal condition requiring medical treatment. Don’t hesitate to seek medical attention for any concerning symptoms like neurological deficits, trauma, or unexplained weight loss.
Treatment Options for Thoracic Back Pain
- Medications – Over-the-counter NSAIDs like ibuprofen can alleviate inflammation and pain. Muscle relaxers may also provide relief from painful spasms and stiffness.
- Chiropractic care – Spinal manipulation and mobilization techniques can improve restricted thoracic mobility.
- Physical therapy – Stretching, strengthening exercises, and manual therapy help correct muscle imbalances.
- Massage – Relieves muscle tension and spasms.
- Steroid injections – Epidural injections deliver anti-inflammatory corticosteroids near irritated spinal nerves.
- Surgery – Options like spinal fusion may be necessary in rare cases involving neurological deficits or instability.
Your treatment plan should be tailored to your specific symptoms and diagnosis. A combination approach is often most effective. Physical therapy plays a pivotal role in regaining mobility and strength while preventing future recurrence.
Preventing Thoracic Back Pain
Recurrence prevention is key, since those with a history of back problems are more prone to re-injury:
- Maintain proper posture during daily activities.
- Build torso strength with exercises like planks and rows.
- Use good lifting form – bend knees, keep back straight.
- Stretch and strengthen muscles supporting your thoracic spine.
- Optimize ergonomics with lumbar support and monitor positioning.
- Manage weight to reduce spinal loading.
- Stay active with low-impact cardio and muscle-strengthening exercise.
Thoracic Back Pain in Special Populations
While anyone can develop thoracic back pain, certain populations face increased risks and considerations. Athletes, pregnant women, the elderly, and children/adolescents can all present with unique circumstances surrounding their mid back pain.
The causes, recommended treatments, and prevention strategies may differ depending on the specific population affected. Understanding these key differences allows for optimal management tailored to the individual.
The following table summarizes the most relevant factors regarding thoracic back pain in athletes, during pregnancy, in older adults, and in younger populations:
|Muscle strains, herniated discs, spine stress fractures
|Physical therapy, bracing, time off sport
|Strength training, proper technique, equipment fitting
|Postural changes, hormonal effects
|Gentle stretches, lumbar support, acetaminophen
|Maintain neutral spine
|Spinal stenosis, osteoporosis, degenerative disc disease
|Gentle exercise, physical therapy, assistive devices
|Improve posture, fall prevention
|Heavy backpacks, poor posture, sports injuries
|Ice/heat, OTC meds, posture exercises
|Lighten backpack weight, posture reminders
As the table illustrates, athletic activity, hormonal changes, age-related spinal degeneration, and youth musculoskeletal development can all influence thoracic pain.
While these groups may face heightened challenges with thoracic back pain, the right treatment approach helps resolve symptoms and return patients to normal activity.
The Path Forward: Achieving Relief from Thoracic Pain
The road to recovering from thoracic back discomfort starts with education and ends with proper self-care and treatment. Now armed with knowledge on anatomy, causes, symptoms, diagnostic steps, and an array of treatment options, you can work with your doctor to find optimal relief.
While thoracic pain may persist as a chronic issue for some, most people find their symptoms manageable through posture improvements, home remedies, physical therapy, medication, injections, or surgery if warranted.
Don’t struggle alone – online platforms like Kaly can connect you to medical professionals with specific expertise in treating thoracic spine conditions.
Doctors and specialists can also partner with Kaly to expand their reach and help more patients find providers that are an ideal match. The path to defeating your thoracic pain begins with the first step toward the right care team.