A herniated thoracic disc is especially difficult because there aren’t as many treatments available as there are for disc herniations in other areas of the spine. To understand Thoracic Disc Herniations, though, we first need to cover thoracic spine anatomy and function.
What is a Thoracic Herniated Disc?
Intervertebral discs (IVD) are the shock absorbers of the spine. IVDs are made up of 2 things
1. Annulus Fibrosus
2. Nucleus Pulposus
I use an analogy of a jelly donut to explain what is going on in the spine during disc herniations, with the annulus fibrosis being the thick dough structure and the jelly part being the nucleus pulposus.
With disc herniation, the annulus fibrosus get small tears throughout the annulus. An annulus is a bunch of concentric fibers, so, as the fibers get damaged and cut, the pressure that is built up within the nucleus pushes the now weakened annulus outward, creating a bulge or herniation.
The disc begins to weaken via mild degeneration/tearing of the annular fibers, allowing the pressure of the nucleus to push outward ànd continues to tear or progress. Eventually the annular fibers prolapse or bulge, and, if that continues, then extrusion or herniation starts to set in. Ultimately, the annular fibers all rupture, creating sequestration where the nucleus is pushed outside the disc. Again, think jelly donut.
Not every disc will end up sequestered and, many times, we find disc herniations throughout the entire spine. Many of these herniations are asymptomatic but can become symptomatic at any time. Asymptomatic Disc herniations are actually a fairly common finding when looking at MRIs of the spine. Multiple research studies back this up as well – systemic review demonstrated:
“Thirty-three articles reporting imaging findings for 3110 asymptomatic individuals met our study inclusion criteria. The prevalence of disk degeneration in asymptomatic individuals increased from 37% of 20-year-old individuals to 96% of 80-year-old individuals. Disk bulge prevalence increased from 30% of those 20 years of age to 84% of those 80 years of age. Disk protrusion prevalence increased from 29% of those 20 years of age to 43% of those 80 years of age. The prevalence of annular fissure increased from 19% of those 20 years of age to 29% of those 80 years of age.” (13)
When disc herniations become symptomatic is when we consider interventional treatment for your spine. Let’s dig into what those symptoms can be.
Symptoms of a Thoracic Herniated Disc
Many times thoracic disc herniations go undiagnosed for years because the pain mimics many different conditions such as heart attacks, gall bladder problems, stomach or other abdominal problems. (9, 10). It might not be diagnosed until you see a specialty physician who takes the time to listen to your history about what makes it worse or better, and, is able to do a good physical exam. Then getting an MRI of the thoracic spine can be confirmatory. Here is a previous patient for whom the pain was so severe that they considered suicide! The symptoms can include:
Where and what type of pain your get from a thoracic disc herniation depends on which disc is herniated! There are 11 thoracic discs. The annular fibers, when torn, have sensory fibers that can create intense mid-back pain. With these annular tears, the nerves that innervate the disc become inflamed, sending pain anywhere in the mid-back from between the shoulder blades to next to the lower ribs.
“Discogenic pain,” meaning pain originating from the intervertebral disc, is identified when the pain intensifies with activities/positions that place additional pressure on the disc. The chart below shows disc pressures in different positions. You can see that slouching while sitting creates a 10-fold increase in the discs compared to laying down. Hence most disc pain gets worse with sitting or bent over position! But many times multiple positions can increase the pain, simple activities such as rolling over in bed, leaning over a counter to brush your teeth, and most commonly, I find patients complain mostly about their commute to work, sitting in their car.
If the disc is herniated enough, then it will irritate the exiting nerve root, creating pain along where that nerve goes. Since the thoracic spine goes from the neck to the back, these discs can produce many different symptoms. The upper thoracic spine can send pain into the arm via the T1-T2 disc. Take a look at the dermatomal map below. Red zones are where the pain can go along, many times abdominal pain from a thoracic disc herniation is mistaken for gastrointestinal issues and actual diagnosis is missed for a long time!
Weakness & Motion Difficulties
The ratio of the spinal canal to the spinal cord is far less in the thoracic spine as compared to the lumbar spine where there is much more room for nerves. Because of this being a naturally narrow area, even a small disc herniation can create compression of both the exiting nerve roots as well as the descending spinal cord. If either of these gets compressed enough, can create motor symptoms in the form of weakness in the muscles they innervate.
This can be a very serious condition! If weakness and muscle loss start, then this is one situation where surgical interventional is likely the best option to decompress the nerve to prevent any permanent nerve damage and stop the declining muscle weakness!
Thoracic Spine Anatomy and Function
Your thoracic spine is the section of the spine that connects your neck (cervical spine) to your low back (lumbar spine). It is made up of bones called vertebrae that are stacked on top of each other with a disc (cushion) sandwiched between the bones. Your discs act as shock absorbers and allow the spine to be flexible (1). You have one disc between each vertebra in your spine. There are 12 thoracic vertebrae with 11 thoracic discs between each vertebra.
The thoracic spine has 2 major functions: 1, to protect your spinal cord and 2, to anchor your rib cage to your spine (1). Thoracic discs are made up of 2 types of tissue: 1, the Nucleus Pulposus (NP) and 2, the Annulus Fibrosus (AF) (2). The annulus fibrosus consists of several layers of fibrocartilage made up of both type I and type II collagen. This gives the disc its strength. Nucleus pulposus is the inner core of the vertebral disc. The core is composed of a jelly-like material that consists of mainly water, as well as a loose network of collagen fibers (3). As seen below, you can think of disc anatomy like a jelly doughnut where the dough on the outside is the AF and the jelly in the middle is the NP.
What Causes Thoracic Disc Herniations?
There are many known causes of thoracic disc herniations. Factors that cause disc degeneration include trauma, metabolic abnormalities, genetic predisposition, vascular problems, and infections.
Thoracic spine, when compared to its counterparts (cervical and lumbar spine), has a relatively low incidence of disc herniations. According to Fogwe et al, “Herniation of the intervertebral disc in the thoracic region makes up only 0.5% to 4.5% of all disc ruptures, 0.25-0.75 of all symptomatic disc herniation and 0.15% and 1.8% of all surgically-treated herniations. About 80% of patients usually present with problems in the third or fourth decades of life” (14).
But once found, sometimes it’s hard to say if the herniation was there previously and an event just aggravated or pushed it to the point it could not function and started causing symptoms. That is why the exact cause of disc degeneration is often believed to be multifactorial. Thus, the following outline only covers causes singularly, but you can think of them as interconnected and interdependent.
Discs can be damaged in many ways (4):
Trauma is the most common cause of thoracic disc injuries, i.e. in car accidents or contact sports (7).
Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (EDS), a genetic defect that makes weakened collagen fibers in the disc. EDS can make your discs weaker and, thus, more easily injured (5).
With time, discs become weaker over time and can become damaged more easily (6).
Here I refer to scoliosis or increased curve called “kyphosis,” aka slouching. It places increased stress on the disc resulting in repetitive trauma and eventual damage (8)
What Are the Symptoms of Thoracic Disc Herniations?
While not all thoracic disc herniations are symptomatic, when they are, they can create a number of different symptoms ranging from upper back pain, mid back pain, arm pain, and even groin pain!
Pain can be generated in 2 different ways:
- Directly from the disc called “discogenic pain”
- Irritation of the surrounding nerve tissue called “radicular pain“
How Do You Treat a Thoracic Herniated Disc?
With any orthopedic condition, it’s important to begin with conservative treatment. Things like physical therapy, acupuncture, medications, and other conservative care can be very helpful. The problem comes when all these conservative treatment options fail to resolve your pain. The next option offered would usually be corticosteroid epidurals, but looking at the research, no high levels of studies exist for long-term improvement using steroid epidurals (11). Here is a quick video outlining why corticosteroids actually have negative long-term detrimental side effects.
Should epidural corticosteroids fail to give relief surgery is generally offered as the only other option. While surgery is an option, it should only be used if all else fails. The biggest problem with surgery is the complication rate is as high as 35%! This is not surprising given the high-value real estate near the thoracic spine: lungs, many large blood vessels, spinal cord, rib cage, and other vital structures. Complications from surgery can be life-threatening. These complications include things like, infections, re-herniation of the disc, persistent pain, further degeneration of the disc, and spinal cord or nerve injury. Some complications do not show up until after surgery. Some show up quickly and some may take months to become evident (12).
Surgical intervention is considered as a last resort for the treatment of symptomatic thoracic disc herniations with patients unresponsive to conservative treatment. It sounds simples, surgery will allow for the removal of the calcified disc decompressing the region and relieving pressure on the nerve or spinal cord.
Despite advances in thoracic disc herniation surgery, there are still about 20% to 30% complications associated with it (15-16). Several factors contribute to these complications.
- Symptomatic thoracic disc herniation is rare making it difficult for doctors to gain enough experience to handle it.
- The anatomic nature of the thoracic spines makes it difficult to access the herniations. For example, accessing herniations that are located centrally and anteriorly via posterior vertebral column will mean manipulating the thoracic spine that may result in further spinal cord injury and neurological deficits. Accessing centrally located herniations through the anterior transthoracic approach provides an optimal corridor but also involved with high complications and mortalities.
- Herniations that are calcified and adherent the dura risk dura tear during surgery leading to CSF leak and intracranial and orthostatic hypotension and headache.
Non-Surgical Traditional Interventional Treatments
Before a thoracic disc herniation surgery is considered, patients must fail conservative treatments that consist of:
- Physical Therapy
- Medication management (medications such as NSAIDS, Steroids, Opioid management, neuropathic medications)
- Interventional pain management injections
- Corticosteroid epidurals
- Can give short term relief but can have diminishing returns. To learn more, go here: https://centenoschultz.com/less-relief-with-successive-epidural-steroid-injections/
- Facet steroid injections
- Medial branch blocks
- Radiofrequency ablation
- Corticosteroid epidurals
All these treatments are designed to give short-term relief but do not address the underlying conditions and help mask the symptoms but even worse these treatments may even advance degeneration! For example, radiofrequency ablation – burns the sensory nerves to the facet joints BUT that nerve also controls the nerve to the multifidi muscles that support and stabilize each segment of the spine. So, while the sensory nerve is burned, you won’t feel the pain from the joint, over time inhibiting the protecting muscles that support the joint means that over time the joint will increase the stress it has on it and further advance arthritis!
Regenexx may have a better option!
Using orthobiologics such as platelet-rich plasma and autologous cellular therapy to treat various spinal conditions is not new to us. We were the first physicians in the world to use advanced cultured expanded MSCs to inject into disc herniations dating back to the early 2000s! Take a deep dive into all the research we continue to publish in the field of ortho-biologics: https://centenoschultz.com/published-research-articles/
Thoracic disc herniations, we see these often but not as often as we see cervical and lumbar disc injuries. Looking at recent outcome data, we can see, using the most advanced ortho-biologics have an extremely low surgical conversion rate in the cervical and lumbar spine (<3%) to see more on surgical conversions, read more here https://regenexx.com/blog/which-regenexx-procedures-fail-the-most
Evidence-based medicine using biologics based on your type of disc herniation to optimize your results. When treating various types of disc herniations, we utilize a custom treatment plan based on your specific details to optimize our results and is why our surgical conversion rate is so low.
We continue to publish more research on our functional spine model approach. Our more recent publication highlights its use in the cervical spine:
Is There a Better Option?
In the end, there are many ways to treat pain from thoracic disc herniations. As highlighted above, surgical approach can be both risky and ineffective. We have pioneered spine treatments with ortho-biologics over the past 15+ years with documented excellent outcomes and surgical avoidance. If you have been dealing with a thoracic disc and failing to get the results you desire, contact us today so we can review all your imaging, do a thorough examination to discuss possible treatment options.
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