How Does a Herniated Disc in the Upper Back Cause Pain in Los Angeles, CA

When you think of spine pain, it’s usually the lower back or neck that comes to mind, since the upper back is protected by the rib cage and isn’t as mobile. However, there are times when a disc in the upper back area is the source of back pain. When this happens, it’s called a thoracic herniated disc. Here’s what you need to know about this source of spine-related discomfort and how it might be experienced.

Thoracic Herniated Disc Symptoms

To understand the type of pain a thoracic herniated disc could cause, it can be helpful to have a better idea of the symptoms you might notice. The most common signs are sharp pain or discomfort affected by certain movements. Other symptoms may include:

• Electric-like or burning sensations felt directly in the upper back or around the chest and/or abdominal area
• Similar discomfort extending into the legs
• Numbness, tingling, and other sensory symptoms felt around or just below the affected disc
• Leg weakness, instability while walking, and similar motor-related issues

What a Herniated Upper Back Disc Is

A thoracic herniated disc affects one or more of the twelve spinal discs that make up the upper back area. A disc becomes herniated when soft inner disc material (nucleus pulposus) pushes through the disc’s tougher outside layer (annulus fibrosus).

Discogenic Pain

Tissues directly connected to the affected disc sometimes become irritated or inflamed, which is referred to as discogenic pain. The type of pain felt is usually localized, or right where the damaged disc is located in the upper back, which is why it’s sometimes mistaken for a heart or abdominal problem.

Muscle Spasms

A damaged upper back disc may irritate or injure nearby ligaments. If this happens, large muscles that support the spine may tense up or contract. Should this happen, you might experience painful muscle spasms that could affect your range of motion or ability to stand upright without pain.

Radicular Pain

This is the type of pain that travels to nearby areas because of nerve irritation caused by a damaged disc. The resulting discomfort may be described as:

• Burning/electric-like
• Mild or achy in nature
• A feeling of pressure around the chest or abdominal area

Herniated Disc Location & Direction

More often than not, thoracic disc herniation occurs in the lower portion of the upper spine, since this is the most mobile part of this section of spinal bones. The direction of the disc damage is another factor that affects how pain is felt. A herniation can occur in one of three ways: 

  • Lateral – Disc material exits one side, which could irritate a nearby nerve
  • Central – Disc material exits into the center part of the spinal canal, which could contribute to spinal narrowing (stenosis) or spinal cord compression
  • Central-lateral – Disc material exits to the side and into the spinal canal, which could contribute to nerve irritation or spinal cord irritation 

A thoracic herniated disc often improves with 2–3 months of nonsurgical care that usually includes medication, activity modification, and physical therapy. If you’re not experiencing relief after 4 to 6 weeks or your pain is extreme, your spine specialist may recommend a surgical option such as a total disc replacement. Santa Monica patients who are experiencing muscle weakness or worsening numbness and radiating pain should seek medical attention as soon as possible.

You can reduce your risk of upper back pain from a disc issue by taking precautions while playing sports and paying attention to your posture. If your pain has become too severe, speak with a Santa Monica spine surgeon. Dr. Hyun Bae and his team of expert physicians at The Spine Institute can help you find an effective solution for pain relief. Call 310-828-7757 today to learn more.


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