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The thoracic spine refers to the vertebrae in the upper and middle sections of the spine centered around those vertebrae that connect with the ribs. The thoracic spine’s function is to stabilize the body and hold it upright. It also provides a foundation for the bones that protect the body’s vital organs. While the thoracic spine is durable, there are numerous health problems that can afflict it. Most often these problems manifest as pain in the middle back and a decrease in mobility.
The thoracic spine differs from other regions of the spine in several ways. The thoracic vertebrae have more limited flexibility than other parts of the spine because they are connected with the rib cage. Problems most often occur with the lowest two thoracic vertebrae. The ribs attached to these vertebrae are not connected to the sternum, so they are less stable. The thoracic spine also has thinner intervertebral discs, the soft tissue between the bones of the vertebra. Finally, the thoracic vertebrae have a narrower spinal canal, the hollow opening in the spinal column that contains the spinal cord. This increases the possibility that the spinal cord may be damaged if any of the thoracic vertebrae are shifted or broken, making the thoracic region of the spine one of the most prone to nerve damage.
There are two severe adverse medical conditions that can affect the thoracic spine.
This is a common problem in patients with osteoporosis. The weakened bones of the spine crack under normal pressure or due to an abnormal movement or strain. This causes the spine to collapse and produce a hunchbacked appearance. Patients with this condition often suffer from chronic pain, decreased lung and intestinal function and difficulty sleeping. The most common form of treatment for a compression fracture is kyphoplasty. This surgery injects bone cement into the fractured area of the spine to correct the deformity and restore structure.
Disc herniation occurs when the soft tissue between the vertebrae is squeezed out from its normal location. This often occurs in older patients due to normal wear and tear on the discs. It may also occur due to a trauma, such as a car accident or other back injury the forcibly moves or compresses the spine. Herniation results in pain that may be mild or severe depending on the location and degree of herniation. Herniation severe enough to damage the spinal cord will be especially painful. Pain may also radiate to the arms or chest. Patients are often proscribed anti-inflammatory medication and advised to rest the back or wear a back brace. Mild cases can be rehabilitated without surgery. If the problem is severe or worsens, then a surgical procedure will be used to remove the herniated disc before it can harm the spinal cord. The two vertebrae once joined by the disc are then fused together to maintain the spine’s strength and stability. Fusion is only necessary if enough of the disc was removed to cause instability or painful friction in the vertebrae.
Thoracic spine injuries can be serious and usually require medical attention. Due to the wide range of severity in problems, treatment may consist of physical therapy and minor medications all the way to major back surgery. If a patient develops chronic back pain, has a noticeable deformity or develops sharp back pain, then they should be examined by a physician immediately to determine the severity of the condition. If left untreated, thoracic spine conditions can cause incurable spinal cord damage and neurological disorders.