Thoracic Spine Pain

Keywords: thoracic spine pain, chiropractic help, Scheuermanns disease, Tietzes syndrome, deep upper back pain

Deep upper back pain is rarely serious but frequently can be very irritating. Metastases from known cancers of the lungs and breast should be kept in mind, but they are very much the exception.

There are twelve thoracic vertebrae, each attached via three joints, marked with an X below, to a rib on each side, thus six in total, which in turn is joined to the breastbone. It stretches from the base of the neck to the bottom of the ribcage. 12 x 8 = 96 rib joints.

This means that each thoracic vertebra has eight joints associated with it. 

  • Two intervertebral joints with the vertebrae above and below.
  • Six costo vertebral joints between the vertebra and the rib. A great many joints, ninety six in total, each with supporting ligaments and muscles, making it a complex and frequently painful area.

The midback is far more stable than the neck and lumbar spine because of the stabilising effect of the rib cage.

Nevertheless, a good sneeze, particularly if twisting at the time, or a bout of bronchitis will frequently subluxate, sprain, one of those joints causing severe pain with each breath. It feels like someone is stabbing you in the back with a rusty knife.

Each vertebra is attached by a rib to the breastbone, sternum, thus giving the whole chest a certain rigidity. This makes it far less liable to the serious disc injuries associated with the neck and the lower back.  

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Of course, occasionally tragic things happen in the practice.  Right now I'm treating a very elderly lady. Twenty years ago I had to break the news to her husband that his thoracic spine pain was caused by multiple myeloma.

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Thoracic spine pain

Seen from the side, the thoracic spine has a natural curve called a kyphosis.

This "kyphosis" provides the spine with a certain amount of 'give' when for example jumping from a height onto the ground. A straight spine would experience too much axial compression, and fracture the bones.


The case history of a young rugby player who after a tackle experienced very severe midback pain. Fracture or subluxation? It can test every clinician. Hot from the field he enjoyed a glass of our Lemon drop drink recipe ...

Causes of Osteoporosis 

However, the kyphosis can increase for pathological reasons causing thoracic spine pain. The most common is the so called kyphotic, bent, spine of the elderly. It is usually associated with osteoporosis and anterior wedging of the vertebrae, as seen in this MRI of a spine with an anterior compression fracture. For more on the causes of osteoporosis, click here. Causes of osteoporosis.

Scheuermann's disease

Another fairly common condition, Scheuermanns disease causes an increased kyphosis affecting teenagers. It causes pain usually between the shoulder blades, and less commonly in the low back, and is the cause of the poor posture and slumped shoulders seen in about five percent of teenagers.

What is quite often seen in the practice, in young to middle aged adults, is a scheuermann like thoracic deep achey pain. The structural changes, and abnormal cartilage make the spine very stiff. Adjusting the midback feels like adjusting into concrete, and a hard physical manipulation just increases the pain. What's needed is more frequent gentle adjustments.

It has many of the hallmarks of scheuermanns, a stiff and rigid thoracic spine, an increased kyphosis, sometimes a scoliosis, loss of disc space with mild degenerative changes, but without the typical bone changes associated with scheuermanns.

I call it a light form of scheuermanns, as it has so many similar clinical features, but without the gross xray changes, and is managed in much the same way. All disease seems to come in severe and mild forms. Thoracic spine pain is common, and this condition can never be cured. An occasional, but regular treatment is what keeps the pain at bay. How frequent? Talk to your chiropractors! There are so many variables. Perhaps four to eight weeks.

There are often objections to regular chiropractic treatment. It's no difference in medicine; patients with diabetes for example, incurable, require regular occasional management by your doctor.

If these joints are not brought into movement, then the hyaline cartilage, starved of nutrients and oxygen, degenerates and on xray it just looks like typical osteoarthritis. A stitch in time, or, in our context, a chiropractic adjustment in time, saves nine barrow loads of thoracic spine pain!

Tietzes syndrome

The attachments of the ribs firstly to the spine via the

  1. Costo spinal joints, rib pain treatment and secondly,
  2. in front, to the breastbone, costosternal ches pain.

Both of these joints, at the back between the shoulder blades, and in front at the breastbone are common cause of thoracic spine pain seen in every chiropractic clinic. Sometimes, if it irritates the intercostal nerve, it may follow the rib to the sternum.

This latter condition, sometimes called Tietes syndrome is quite often, if it affects the ribs on the left, confused with a heart attack because the pain is directly over the heart, and may be increased wih exercise which stresses the heart, as in angina, but also the rib sternum joint when breathing deeply.

What may catch any chiropractor out, in it's early stages, and presumably your medical doctor too, is an attack of shingles. This is a viral condition causing a nerve type pain that follows the rib. After a few days the vesicles appearand his her face will be red! But I've never had a case of shingles that I've treated inadvertently, that has gone on to become a chronic nerve pain, as can happen.

Thoracic Outlet Syndrome 

The upper thoracic spine is a unique area for two reasons. Firstly, it is an area of change, where the highly flexible neck meets the very rigid mid-back. The C6-T2 area is thus very prone to injury and tingling or pain in the arm. Thoracic outlet syndrome.

The second reason is the presence of the shoulderblades or scapula(e). These large flat bones are the anchor points for many of the large shoulder muscles, shoulder anatomy and are themselves firmly anchored to the thoracic spine.

As you can appreciate, there are a great many muscles, ligaments, joints and bones in the mid-back. The injuries associated with them are not usually serious, but are the cause of many niggling, aching pains between the shoulder blades.


Very occasionally, depending on the society, bacteria may attack the spine. It's a favourite nesting place for people suffering from AIDS and tuberculosis.

More rarely, an epidural, such as is commonly today used in child birth, may introduce bacteria to the spinal fluid, where they are free to travel. A recent case, was a puzzler for all concerned.

The key signs for this chiropractor were:

  1. Inspiration pain, but bilateral pain. A sprung rib commonly causes inspiration pain, but it's unilateral, one side only.
  2. Extreme pain on using a hyperextension technique. Hyperextension techniques are rarely painful; when they cause pain, it's a sign for your chiropractor to look further.

She's doing okay, all things considered, but even after extensive

antibiotic treatment, the vertebra has crumbled. Even the commonest medical procedures occasionally have devastating side effects. Doctor caused disease is the third most common disease in developed countries like the United States, mostly from medication. 

Metastatic bone disease is fortunately an uncommon in chiropractic practice, but a case could walk in tomorrow.

Both lung and breast cancer have a tendency to metastasise to the ribs and thoracic spine. All doctors, and chiropractors especially, need to be aware that an abnormal presentation, particularly if there is a history of smoking or breast cancer, may indicate something other than routine spinal subluxations.


To go from BACK PAIN to CHIROPRACTIC CONDITIONS frequently seen ...

To go from THORACIC SPINE PAIN back to CHIROPRACTIC HELP home page ...

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Interesting challenges of the day

1. Mr B  came initially for a painful and stiff neck and then asked whether chiropractic could help the cold numb feeling running down the side of his thigh for six months. Meralgia paresthetica is a double crush syndrome with the nerve affected in the back and groin. He's 80% improved after five treatments.

2. Mrs C has a long history of severe, disabling migraine headaches since having her wisdom teeth removed. She clenches her teeth at night. After six treatments she has no migraines but some jaw joint discomfort remains; a bite plate is in the offing.

3. Mrs U has the trophy for the worst back this year. After major surgery with plates and screws two years later she still had paresis in the lower leg and severe disabling back pain. She's doing far better than expected, in no little part due to a lift in her shoe for a very short leg.

4. Mr V is 86 years old and hurt his back helping his wife into the car. Just one treatment of the sacroiliac joint and he's eighty percent better. It's not always like that.

5. Mr W lay on his back knocking down a pillar. Turning his head causes severe vertigo. He needs the Epley exercises, not pills, research shows. Update, he's fine.

6. Mrs X, a young mother has severe lower back pain, with numbness down the posterior thigh, calf and side of her foot. It started after a long drive in the car. After six treatments she is 60 percent better, but it's slow and is going to take the full 6 weeks to heal.

And now a setback, after lifting her child she now has leg pain. It's going to the be difficult.

7. This lady is a 70 year old woman, is on maintenance care for a nasty lumbar stenosis despite having to do everything at home. Her husband has a hospital acquired infection after a total shoulder replacement. After four operations he is incapacitated.

8. She is an 78 year old woman, is doing remarkably well with a bad sciatica. But over 200 pounds she is not losing weight; in fact, gaining despite my suggestions. She's high risk for a stroke. I have referred her to a dietician to crack the whip.

9. This man is a 73 year old engineer, still working, is doing fine after a long episode of lower back pain. Some pain on the side of the hip remains after five treatments. I reassured him it's not hip arthritis.

10. A 64 year old woman has had scheuermanns disease; it's left her with a spinal kyphosis and chronic middorsal pain. She responds well to chiropractic treatment provides she come every six weeks or so for maintenance treatment.

11. Mr C has been having severe headaches, and taking a lot of analgesics. It's a non complicated upper cervical facet syndrome, and she's doing well.

12. Mrs D, a middle aged woman with hip pain of one year duration, despite other treatment. Xrays reveal an impingement syndrome and early hip arthritis. There's much to be done.

13. Both Mrs E and I can't believe how much better her lower back and leg pain are. Surgery for a scoliosis and spondylolysthesis three years ago helped greatly for one year. But then her leg went lame and weak. He was responded extremely well despite all expectations.

And so the day goes; chiropractors shouldn't be treating the elderly most medical sites state but that's so much bunkum.

Have a problem that's not getting better? Looking for a different slant on your pain? Want to pose a question?

Interesting questions from visitors

CLS writes:

Greetings, Dr B.
You helped me quite some time back with a soothing and professional response which turned out to be exactly correct. I now consult a local chiropractor. You write a superb newsletter, too.

Your own unresolved problem. Pose a question

Knowing that up to 70% of the time the correct diagnosis is made with no examination, no special tests, no xrays, but just from the history, there's a fair chance I can add some insight to your unresolved problem. But at least 30% of the time, I may be quite wrong! Give plenty of detail if you want a sensible reply.

You visited this chiropractic help site no doubt because you have a problem that is not resolving and want to know more about what chiropractors do.

The quickest and most interesting way is to read one of my ebooks of anecdotes. Described by a reader as gems, both funny and healthful, from the life and work of a chiropractor, you'll love them. Priced right at $2.99, though Kindle fiddles the price without telling me.