How a Herniated Disc in Your Upper Back Causes Pain, Numbness, and Weakness

The term thoracic refers to your upper or middle back. When a disc herniates in this section of the spine it is called a thoracic disc herniation—read on to visualize how this occurs and the types of symptoms it can lead to.

See Upper Back Pain from a Thoracic Herniated Disc

Thoracic Herniated Disc VideoWatch this 2-minute animated video to visualize exactly how a thoracic herniated disc occurs.
Thoracic Herniated Disc Video

Thoracic herniated disc video highlights

Your thoracic spine has 11 spinal discs in between the thoracic vertebrae. If the soft inner core of one of these discs leaks out it can affect either the spinal cord or spinal nerve root.

See Thoracic Spine Anatomy and Upper Back Pain

Thoracic Herniated Disc VideoWhen your spinal discs are healthy, the soft, spongy core known as the nucleus pulposus is firmly contained in the center of the disc.

Either due to trauma or through a degenerative process that occurs over time, the tough outer layers of the disc—called the annulus fibrosus—can break down and allow the jelly-like inner core—called the nucleus pulposus—to leak out or extrude.

See The "Degenerative Cascade" of a Degenerating Disc

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Thoracic Herniated Disc VideoYour annulus fibrosus serves as a protective barrier, encapsulating the disc.

A thoracic disc may herniate to the side and affect a nerve root as it exits the spine. This is called a lateral herniation.

Thoracic Herniated Disc VideoThe herniated disc can press on the nerve root, shown in yellow, which can cause inflammation and pain, shown here in red.

Pain from a lateral thoracic herniation may travel along the path of the affected nerve root, which can cause you to experience pain in your back, chest, or abdomen. The medical term for this type of nerve pain is a radiculopathy.

See Radiculopathy, Radiculitis and Radicular Pain

A thoracic spinal disc can also herniate back towards the spinal cord, called central herniation. If this is the case, you may experience a range of neurological symptoms including numbness below the vertebral level where your disc has herniated. In serious instances, centrally herniated thoracic discs may cause myelopathy—a range of symptoms indicating that the spinal cord has been affected.

Watch: Myelopathy Video

It is possible for your thoracic discs to herniate both to the side and back into the spinal cord and to experience a combination of both the radicular pain and neurological symptoms.

Thoracic Herniated Disc VideoThis thoracic disc has herniated centro-laterally, pressing on both the spinal cord in the back of the spine and the nerve root as it exits the spinal canal.

A disc is more likely to herniate towards the bottom of the lower thoracic spine, where the thoracic spine meets the lumbar spine—called the thoraco-lumbar junction, as this section of the spine has less stability.

See Thoracic Spine Anatomy and Upper Back Pain

Herniated discs in your thoracic spine are usually treatable without surgical intervention, though particularly severe cases may warrant surgery.

Learn more:

Thoracic Herniated Disc Surgery

Thoracic Herniated Disc Causes

Post written by Daniel Perret