When the inner core of any disc between the 12 vertebrae of the thoracic spine extrudes through the outer core and irritates a nearby spinal nerve root, a herniated disc occurs.

Determining causation of the thoracic herniated disc is essential before treatment of upper back pain and any related symptoms can take place. Doctors typically classify thoracic herniated discs as being caused by either one of two sources:

  • Degenerative disc disease. Many thoracic herniated discs occur from gradual wear and tear on the disc, which leads to settling of the vertebral bodies and calcification about the disc space.
  • Trauma to the upper back. Traumatic herniated discs are defined as those associated with a significant traumatic event that caused the abrupt onset of symptoms.

Thoracic Herniated Discs from Degenerative Disc Disease

When symptomatic of degenerative disc disease, the symptoms of a thoracic herniated disk most commonly occur between the 4th and 6th decades of life and usually develop very gradually.

With degenerative disc disease, the patient’s thoracic back pain and other symptoms are often present for a longer period of time prior to consultation with a physician.

Thoracic Herniated Discs from Sudden Trauma

Any injury that causes a high degree of sudden force on the discs in the upper spine could lead to a thoracic herniated disc. Examples of a traumatic event that may lead to a thoracic herniated disc include a fall or sports injury that places sudden force on the upper back.

Thoracic herniated discs tend to occur in younger patients prior to significant degenerative disc changes. While in most cases some history of mild trauma has led to an exacerbation of the patient’s symptoms, a mild trauma (such as reaching up while twisting) will usually just worsen symptoms from a degenerated disc.


Regardless of the cause of the thoracic back pain, getting a correct diagnosis is critical because it will guide treatment of the thoracic herniated disc.

Watch Video: Can Herniated Discs Heal on Their Own?

Dr. David DeWitt is an orthopedic surgeon practicing at the NeuroSpine Center of Wisconsin, where he specializes in spine surgery. He has more than 15 years of experience evaluating and treating spine diseases and trauma.