The thoracic spine is located in the upper to middle area of the back. It connects with the cervical vertebrae, extending down to approximately five inches below the bottom of the shoulder blades in an adult, where it then connects to the vertebrae of the lower spine.

The thoracic spine consists up of twelve vertebrae, and one of its main functions is to give the body stability. The cervical (upper) and the lumbar (lower) spine help the body to maintain its flexibility, but the stability of the thoracic spine plays a major role in holding the body in an upright position and protecting the heart and lungs.

Many things about this part of the spine make it different from the other sections. The ribs connect to this portion of the spine. One rib firmly connects on either side of each of the thoracic vertebrae. The first ten ribs curve to the front of the body, attaching to the sternum. The next two ribs protect the kidneys in the back portion of the body and don’t attach in the front of the body.

The discs between the vertebrae of the thoracic spine work like shock absorbers. They have round shape, but are not as thick as those in the other spinal sections. Nevertheless, herniated discs are less common in this area because fewer movement occurs here, and less wear and tear damage occurs. 

Spinal canal is the hollow, protective tunnel, through which the spinal cord passes. It is narrower in the thoracic spine than in the lumbar or cervical spine. This means the spinal cord is more likely to be injured if one or more of the thoracic vertebrae are damaged or impaired.

Pain and the Thoracic Spine

The thoracic spine is quite complex and contains bones, nerves, connective tissue, muscles, joints and spinal segments. It is solid and fairly stable, but while pain in the thoracic spine is not as likely as in other parts of spine, it can occur.

  • Muscle pain:  This can be caused by improper posture or irritation of the shoulder or large muscles of the back. It is sometimes called myofascial pain.
  • Joint Dysfunction: This can be caused by a problem where the spine attaches to the ribs. 
  • Herniated discs: Herniated discs and degenerative disc disease do not happen so frequently in the middle section of the spine, but they can be a reason for pain in the mid-section of the spine.
  • Arthritis: Arthritic conditions and associated inflammation can cause pressure on a nerve in the thoracic spine. The tissue in the joints can wear thin or bone spurs can form due to arthritis and cause enlargement of the joints.
  • Fractures: Fractures due to bone thinning or osteoporosis sometimes occur in the thoracic spine.  
  • Kyphosis or Scoliosis: These are abnormal curvatures of the spine which can sometimes cause pain.