Degenerative thoracic spine conditions have their origin in the middle back, though the symptoms can spread as far as the legs and arms. Although the thoracic spine region is less likely to deteriorate compared to the lumbar (lower back) or cervical (neck) regions, the thoracic spine is not immune to degeneration and damage.
The thoracic spine is unique for several reasons. First, the 12 vertebrae of the thoracic spine (T1-T12) connect directly to the ribs, meaning that they help the rib cage protect major organs like the heart, lungs, and liver. And, since they are anchored to the rib cage, the thoracic vertebrae do not have the same range of motion as vertebrae in the neck or lower back. The thoracic spine also has very pronounced spinous processes, which are bony projections on the vertebrae that help muscles and ligaments attach to the spine.
Two common degenerative thoracic spine conditions include osteoarthritis and degenerative disc disease. Osteoarthritis, also called degenerative arthritis of the spine, is the disintegration of cartilage in the facet joints. (The facet joints are located in between vertebrae and allow the vertebrae to move in multiple directions.) Degenerative disc disease, on the other hand, is the disintegration of cartilaginous discs in between the vertebrae. These issues can lead to painful conditions such as herniated discs, bulging discs, thinning discs, bone spurs, and the narrowing of the spinal column. Why are these conditions painful? Because they can put pressure on nerve roots, essentially pinching the nerves and causing them to signal intense pain.
Degenerative spine symptoms in the thoracic (or middle) back often show themselves in the lower extremities, but also can affect the shoulders and arms. In addition to pain, symptoms include muscle weakness, numbness, tingling sensations, and possibly trouble walking.
If your physician has diagnosed you with a degenerative thoracic spine condition – or with a more common degenerative cervical spine (neck) or degenerative lumbar spine (lower back) problem – treatment may include pain medication, mild massage, rest, gentle stretching, or steroid injections.