Skip to Content

Thoracic Disc Herniation


What is thoracic disc herniation?

Thoracic disc herniation occurs when a thoracic disc bulges out from between your vertebrae. Thoracic discs are spongy cushions between the vertebrae in your spine. Thoracic discs are located between the base of your neck and your lower back. The herniated disc may press on your nerves or spinal cord.

What causes thoracic disc herniation?

  • Cracked vertebrae or changes in the shape of your vertebrae may increase your risk for disc herniation. The gel-like material inside your disc may leak out of the cracks. The whole disc may also begin to bulge out of the cracks in your vertebrae.
  • Weak discs may develop if the amount of gel-like material inside the disc decreases. This causes the disc to lose its cushion and may bulge out from between your vertebrae. Discs can weaken with age.
  • A back injury may cause a disc to herniate if these forces are very strong, or if your discs are weakened.
  • Scar tissue may build up between your disc and the covering of your spinal cord. The scar tissue may add pressure to your discs and cause a herniation.

What are the signs and symptoms of thoracic disc herniation?

Mild thoracic disc herniation may not cause any signs or symptoms. You may have any of the following if the herniated disc presses against your nerves or spinal cord:

  • Back or shoulder pain
  • Chest, pelvic, abdominal, or buttock pain
  • Headaches when you sit or lie in certain positions
  • Numbness, tingling, or a burning feeling in your legs
  • Trouble walking or moving your legs
  • Weakness in your arms or legs

How is thoracic disc herniation diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask you about your symptoms and any health problems you may have. Tell him if you have had any recent injuries. He may look at your spine and feel for any abnormal areas. Tell him if any area on your spine is painful when touched. Your healthcare provider may do tests to check the movement and feeling in your legs. You may also need any of the following:

  • An MRI or a CT scan may be used to take pictures of your spine. The pictures can show a bulging disc or if the disc is pressing on your nerves and spinal cord. You may be given contrast dye to help the pictures show up better. Tell the healthcare provider if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast dye. Do not enter the MRI room with anything metal. Metal can cause serious injury. Tell the healthcare provider if you have any metal in or on your body.
  • Myelography is an x-ray of your spinal cord. Dye will be injected into the area around your spinal cord before the pictures are taken.
  • An x-ray of your spine may be taken to check for abnormal areas.
  • An electromyography (EMG) is a test that checks for damage to the nerves that control your muscles.

How is thoracic disc herniation treated?

Your healthcare provider may have you rest in bed for a few days. You may also need any of the following:

  • Medicines:
    • NSAIDs decrease swelling and pain. This medicine is available without a doctor's order. Ask your healthcare provider which medicine is right for you, and how much to take. Follow directions. NSAIDs can cause stomach bleeding or kidney problems if not taken correctly. If you take blood thinner medicine, always ask your healthcare provider if NSAIDs are safe for you.
    • Prescription pain medicine may be given. Do not wait until the pain is severe before you take this medicine.
    • Muscle relaxers and steroids may also be given. Muscle relaxers help decrease muscle pain and spasms. Steroids decrease inflammation.
    • Injections of medicine may also be given. Chemonucleolysis helps shrink your bulging disc. An epidural numbs the area near the bulging disc and decreases pain. A nerve block is given close to the nerve that is near the bulging disc. This can help decrease pain and inflammation.
  • A back brace may be needed to provide support and decrease pain.
  • Physical therapy may be recommended by your healthcare provider. A physical therapist may teach you exercises and stretches that make your back muscles stronger and decrease your pain.
  • Surgery may be needed to fix your herniated disc if other treatments have failed. Surgery may be done to remove your herniated disc and make your spine stronger. Surgery may also be done to decrease pressure on your nerves and spinal cord.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • You begin leaking urine or bowel movement, and it is not normal for you.
  • Your pain worsens even after you take medicine.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care or call 911?

  • You are unable to move one or both of your legs.
  • You have severe headaches when you hold your head in certain positions.
  • You have new and sudden chest pain.
  • You suddenly have trouble breathing.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2017 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.