Thoracic Radiculopathy Overview

Thoracic Radiculopathy Overview_Momentum Medical

Thoracic radiculopathy, a less common form of radiculopathy, involves the compression and irritation of nerve roots in the thoracic spine in the upper and mid-back. It can cause significant pain and discomfort, significantly impacting one’s quality of life. It is imperative to grasp this condition’s causes, symptoms, and treatments for effective management and recovery.

What is Thoracic Radiculopathy?

Thoracic radiculopathy occurs when a nerve root in one or more of the twelve vertebrae (T1-T12) in the thoracic spine is compressed or inflamed. These vertebrae extend from the neck’s base to the lower back and protect the spinal cord while supporting the rib cage. The nerve roots emerging from the thoracic spine control sensory and motor functions in the upper back, chest, and abdomen.

Causes of Thoracic Radiculopathy

Several factors can lead to thoracic radiculopathy, including:

  1. Herniated Discs: When the soft inner gel of a spinal disc protrudes through a tear in the outer layer, it will press on nearby nerves, causing pain and inflammation.
  2. Degenerative Disc Disease: As we age, the spinal discs can undergo wear and tear, degenerate, reduced disc height, and potential nerve compression.
  3. Spinal Stenosis: The spinal canal can become narrowed, exerting pressure on nerve roots and leading to symptoms of radiculopathy.
  4. Osteoarthritis: The formation of bone spurs due to arthritis can impinge on nerve roots.
  5. Trauma: Injuries from accidents or falls can cause vertebral fractures or dislocations, affecting nerve roots.
  6. Tumors: Rarely, tumors in the thoracic spine can compress nerve roots.

Symptoms of Thoracic Radiculopathy

The symptoms of thoracic radiculopathy vary depending on the specific nerve root affected. Common symptoms include:

  • Pain: Sharp, burning, or radiating pain in the upper or mid-back, which may extend to the chest or abdomen.
  • Numbness: Loss of sensation in the areas served by the compressed nerve.
  • Tingling: A pins-and-needles sensation in the affected regions.
  • Muscle Weakness: Reduced strength in the muscles innervated by the affected nerve root.
  • Sensory Changes: Altered perception of touch or temperature in the involved areas.


Diagnosing thoracic radiculopathy involves a combination of medical history review, physical examination, and diagnostic tests. Physicians thoroughly assess symptoms, conduct neurological exams, and order X-rays, MRI, or CT scans to precisely locate and determine the cause of nerve compression, as well as electromyography (EMG) and nerve conduction studies (NCS) to evaluate nerve function.

Treatment Options

The treatment of thoracic radiculopathy typically begins with conservative measures. These include:

  1. Medication: Over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), muscle relaxants, and analgesics can effectively manage pain and inflammation.
  2. Physical Therapy: Targeted exercises and stretches can strengthen the back muscles, improve flexibility, and alleviate symptoms.
  3. Epidural Steroid Injections: Corticosteroid injections into the epidural space around the affected nerve root can reduce inflammation and pain.
  4. Activity Modification: Avoiding activities that exacerbate symptoms and incorporating ergonomic adjustments can provide relief.

Surgical Intervention

If conservative treatments do not provide enough relief, surgical options may be considered. Surgery aims to decompress the affected nerve root and stabilize the spine. Surgical procedures may include:

  • Discectomy: Removing the herniated portion of a disc.
  • Laminectomy: Removing part of the vertebra (lamina) to relieve pressure on the nerve.
  • Spinal Fusion: Fusing adjacent vertebrae to stabilize the spine.

Preventive Measures

While it’s not always possible to prevent thoracic radiculopathy, taking specific measures can help lower the risk:

  • Maintaining Good Posture: Proper posture reduces strain on the spine.
  • Regular Exercise: Strengthening the back and core muscles can support the spine and prevent injuries.
  • Healthy Weight: Reducing excess weight decreases the load on the spine.
  • Ergonomic Adjustments: Remember to maintain proper ergonomics at work and home to avoid putting unnecessary strain on your back.
  • Avoiding Smoking: Smoking accelerates degenerative changes in the spine.

Living with Thoracic Radiculopathy

Thoracic radiculopathy can significantly impact daily life, but many individuals experience significant improvements with appropriate treatment and management. Adhering to prescribed treatments, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and making necessary adjustments can help manage symptoms and prevent recurrence.

If you experience persistent back pain or symptoms suggestive of thoracic radiculopathy, consulting a healthcare provider is essential. Getting an early diagnosis and taking action can make a real difference in improving outcomes and avoiding long-term complications.

Thoracic radiculopathy, though less common than cervical or lumbar radiculopathy, can cause considerable discomfort and disability. Learning about what causes it, recognizing its symptoms, and exploring different treatments are essential for effectively managing it and enhancing overall quality of life. With timely medical intervention and appropriate lifestyle changes, individuals with thoracic radiculopathy can achieve significant relief and lead active, fulfilling lives.

Request a consultation: