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Herniated Thoracic Disc

Herniated Thoracic Disc Overview

A herniated thoracic disc (also called thoracic disc herniation) is a serious but treatable spinal condition in which the soft center of an intervertebral disc (the nucleus pulposus) pushes through a tear in the tough outer layer of the disc (the annulus fibrosus) and into the spinal canal. The protruding disc fragment can put pressure on the spinal cord, causing upper back and chest pain and spinal cord dysfunction.

Intervertebral discs act as shock absorbers for the spine and enable its movement. These discs can tear due to degeneration, injury, or a combination of both.

Herniated discs can occur in the lumbar spine (lower back), cervical spine (neck), or thoracic spine (mid-back).

illustration showing a herniated thoracic disc compressing the spinal cord and nerve root exiting the thoracic spinal cord
Illustration showing a herniated thoracic disc compressing the spinal cord and the nerve root exiting the spinal cord, causing radiculopathy and myelopathy.

Anatomy of the Thoracic Spine

Your spine is made up of 33 vertebrae divided into five different segments, which are listed below in order from your head to your legs:

  1. Cervical, or the neck
  2. Thoracic, the middle of the back
  3. Lumbar, or lower back
  4. Sacrum, where the spine connects to the hips
  5. Coccyx, the tailbone

Herniated thoracic discs occur in the thoracic spine, which is made up of the 12 vertebrae that extend from the base of your neck to the bottom of your rib cage.

the segments of the spinal column including the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar segments along with the sacrum and coccyx
This illustration shows the segments of the spinal column along with the areas of the body that can be affected by injuries and diseases in each segment.

One of the main differences between thoracic vertebrae and vertebrae in other levels of the spine is that each thoracic vertebra has joints that connect it to the rib bone on each side of the spine. The support that the rib cage provides to the thoracic spine means it experiences less wear and tear than the other segments of the spine, making it less likely for this segment to develop herniated discs and other conditions.

Herniated Thoracic Disc Symptoms

Symptoms of a herniated thoracic disc may include:

  • Radiculopathy: Pain in the mid-back, which may wrap around the chest
  • Myelopathy: Difficulty walking, progressive weakness, numbness in the lower extremities, and occasionally bowel dysfunction

Radiculopathy

Radiculopathy is the technical term for symptoms caused by pinching of a nerve root that enters the spinal cord.

People often describe radiculopathy as feeling like a strap is being tightened around their chest. The location of this “strap” corresponds to the level of the spine where the herniated thoracic disc is located. It also corresponds to the parts of the body supplied by the nerve that is being pinched.

About 52% of people with a symptomatic herniated thoracic disc experience radiculopathy.

Myelopathy

Myelopathy describes the symptoms caused when pressure from the herniated disc puts pressure on the spinal cord. This can cause dysfunction in areas of the body below the level of the herniated thoracic disc, including the leg weakness and numbness mentioned above.

Symptoms vary depending on the quantity of disc material that has escaped and which structures the escaped material is putting pressure on. In some instances, a herniated thoracic disc may not produce any symptoms.

It is common for doctors to suspect and investigate other, more common conditions because herniated thoracic discs are rare. Often times, people may be tested for heart problems, gastrointestinal problems, angina, lung issues, and shingles in this process.

About 70% of people with symptomatic thoracic disc herniation experience myelopathy.

The symptoms consistent with radiculopathy and myelopathy can be caused by other medical conditions. Only a medical professional can confirm or rule out a diagnosis of herniated thoracic disc.

Herniated Thoracic Disc Treatments

Most cases of thoracic disc herniation can be treated with a nonsurgical approach, which usually consists of rest, anti-inflammatory medication, and physical therapy. However, you may be a candidate for surgery if you have severe back pain and/or neurological symptoms that are not responding to conservative treatment.

Thoracic Discectomy

In this procedure, the neurosurgeon removes the protruding fragment of the disc that is compressing the spinal cord or spinal nerves and causing symptoms.

Traditionally, thoracic discectomy has been performed through an anterior (front) approach or a posterior (back) approach. At Barrow Neurological Institute, our spine surgeons are leaders in minimally invasive techniques, including minimally invasive lateral thoracic discectomy. The benefits of this approach, in which the spine surgeon accesses the spine through the side of the body using a less disruptive approach, include:

  • A shorter hospital stay
  • Less post-operative pain
  • Less time in surgery
  • Reduced blood loss
  • Usually no need for chest tubes

Thoracic Fusion

In some cases, a degenerated disc may need to be removed entirely and the adjacent vertebrae fused together to stabilize the spine.

In this process, the neurosurgeon first removes the damaged disc. Then, the disc is replaced with a bone graft. This graft can be taken from the patient’s rib or hip (autograft) or from a cadaver donor (allograft).

After the bone graft has been placed, the neurosurgeon will usually place rods ands screws in the vertebrae above and below the disc that has been removed. This hardware stabilizes and supports the spine while the bone graft fuses with the surrounding vertebrae.

Spinal fusion can also be performed using minimally invasive techniques.

Common Questions about Herniated Thoracic Disc

How common is thoracic disc herniation?

Herniated discs are very common, but they usually occur in the lumbar spine. Herniated discs in the thoracic region account for less than 1 percent of all herniated discs.

The thoracic region, which is the largest segment of the spinal column, is the least-mobile region of the spine and therefore the least susceptible to disc herniation. Herniated discs in the thoracic region have a tendency to become calcified, also known as hard disc herniation.

Who gets thoracic disc herniation?

Because thoracic disc herniation can be caused by an injury, it can affect anyone. However, it is most common in men between the ages of 40 and 60. As people age, their intervertebral discs may lose their cushioning ability and become more vulnerable to rupture. Some research has shown that herniated discs run in families, suggesting that your genes can make it more likely that you will develop a herniated thoracic disc.

How is thoracic disc herniation diagnosed?

Your doctor may use the following to diagnose a thoracic disc herniation:

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is the best tool for observing and diagnosing problems with intervertebral discs
  • Other Imaging tests, such as X-ray or computed tomography (CT) may be used, but are not as accurate as MRI in diagnosing a herniated thoracic disc
  • Myelography, which involves injecting dye into the space around your spinal cord and taking X-ray or CT images to identify any narrowing in the spinal canal
  • Medical history to identify any accidents, pre-existing conditions, or trauma that may have caused an injury to your spine
  • Physical examination to record the type, severity, and location of your symptoms and draw conclusions about their cause

Sometimes other tests may be ordered because herniated thoracic disc symptoms can mimic heart, lung, and stomach conditions.

An MRI showing a herniated thoracic disc compressing the spinal cord.
An MRI showing a herniated thoracic disc compressing the spinal cord.
An MRI from the same patient shown above after minimally invasive lateral thoracic discectomy and fusion.
An MRI from the same patient shown above after minimally invasive lateral thoracic discectomy and fusion.

Can a herniated thoracic disc heal on its own?

Thoracic disc herniations rarely heal on their own. However, many of these are found incidentally and never produce symptoms. They can be monitored over time.

Because this condition is so rare, there are not good data showing what percentage of herniated thoracic discs heal on their own.

Can a herniated thoracic disc cause paralysis?

Herniated thoracic discs can cause paralysis. However, the onset of paralysis in this condition is gradual. You will not be suddenly and completely paralyzed by a herniated thoracic disc.

The majority of herniated thoracic discs are diagnosed and treated before they progress to even partial paralysis.

Can paralysis caused by herniated thoracic disc be reversed?

Surgery can usually reverse gradual onset paralysis caused by a herniated thoracic disc, along with other symptoms.

However, there is a chance that some symptoms from thoracic disc herniation will not improve after surgery. For this reason, it is important to see a doctor if you are experiencing the symptoms listed above or if your existing symptoms become worse.

What causes thoracic disc herniation?

Sometimes the cause of a thoracic disc herniation is not known, or idiopathic. Other causes include trauma to the spine, such as a motor vehicle accident, and degenerative conditions.

When should I call a doctor?

If you are experiencing symptoms of a herniated thoracic disc you should make an appointment to see your primary care doctor. They can help rule out other conditions and give you a referral to a specialist.

A spinal neurosurgeon can assess your herniated thoracic disc and help you decide if it would be best to have surgery or to try conservative treatment.

When should I consider surgery?

Generally speaking, most neurosurgeons will advise against surgery if you are not experiencing symptoms. If you begin to experience symptoms, or if your mild symptoms become worse, it may be time to consider surgery.

The exception to this is for a giant herniated thoracic disc, which almost always requires surgery. A herniated thoracic disc is considered giant if it obstructs more than 50% of the central canal of the spine that contains the spinal cord. Even if it is not causing symptoms, a giant disc herniation will usually require surgical treatment.

Additional Resources

American Association of Neurological Surgeons
MedlinePlus – National Library of Medicine

  Percent
Herniated discs in the thoracic region account for less than 1 percent of all herniated discs.

Videos

References

  1. Uribe JS, Smith WD, Pimenta L, Härtl R, Dakwar E, Modhia UM, Pollock GA, Nagineni V, Smith R, Christian G, Oliveira L, Marchi L, Deviren V. Minimally invasive lateral approach for symptomatic thoracic disc herniation: initial multicenter clinical experience. J Neurosurg Spine. 2012 Mar;16(3):264-79. doi: 10.3171/2011.10.SPINE11291. Epub 2011 Dec 16. PMID: 22176427.
  2. Christiansen PA, Huang S, Smith JS, Shaffrey ME, Uribe JS, Yen CP. Mini-open lateral retropleural/retroperitoneal approaches for thoracic and thoracolumbar junction anterior column pathologies. Neurosurg Focus. 2020 Sep;49(3):E13. doi: 10.3171/2020.6.FOCUS20360. PMID: 32871570.
  3. Yen CP, Uribe JS. Mini-open Lateral Retropleural Approach for Symptomatic Thoracic Disk Herniations. Clin Spine Surg. 2018 Feb;31(1):14-21. doi: 10.1097/BSD.0000000000000580. PMID: 28857966.
Medically Reviewed by Juan Uribe, MD on April 25, 2022