There are many different reasons you may have pain in this region. Many causes aren’t serious, but some, like a fractured vertebra or herniated disk, require medical attention.

Most people have 33 vertebrae in their spine. These vertebrae are divided into:

  • 7 cervical vertebrae in your neck
  • 12 thoracic vertebrae in your middle and upper back
  • 5 lumbar vertebrae in your lower back
  • 5 fused vertebrae that make up your sacrum
  • 4 fused vertebrae that make up your tailbone

Pain in your middle and upper back is known as thoracic back pain.

Keep reading to learn more about the potential causes of thoracic back pain.

A diagram depicting the subsections of the spine, thoracic spineShare on Pinterest
A diagram depicting the subsections of the spine. Illustration by Jason Hoffman.

Symptoms of thoracic back pain vary depending on the underlying cause of your pain. You may have:

  • sharp pain
  • a dull ache at rest
  • pain during certain movements
  • stiffness
  • swelling
  • muscle spasms
  • cramping
  • sudden pain with sneezing, coughing, or laughing
  • numbness around your rib cage and chest
  • loss of bowel control or bladder control
  • numbness, tingling, or loss of movement in your legs

Thoracic back pain is very common and estimated to affect 15% to 35% of the general adult population each year. Pain in your middle or upper back can have many possible causes.

Here are some of the potential causes.

Muscle and connective tissue pain

A variety of muscle, tendon, or ligament injuries can cause pain in your back. These injuries can either be acute, meaning they onset suddenly, or chronic. Chronic injuries are caused by repetitive strain.

Potential causes of pain include:

  • sports- or exercise-related injuries like muscle strains or ligament sprains
  • motor vehicle crashes or falls
  • carrying heavy objects
  • certain sleeping positions
  • repetitive stress from poor posture
  • pregnancy

Bone and joint pain

Back pain can also be caused by injuries to your vertebrae or joints between your vertebrae. Potential causes of bone and joint pain include:

Your thoracic spine has a relatively narrow canal that allows your spinal cord to pass through. Arthritis and other spinal conditions can lead to compression of your spinal cord. Compression of your spinal cord is called spinal stenosis.

Spinal cancer and tumors

Spinal cancer or noncancerous tumors are rare causes of back pain. They can develop inside your spinal cord or in the tissue covering your spinal cord. Symptoms vary based on where the tumor forms, but they can include:

  • sharp or dull pain not associated with an injury
  • pain that’s worse at night or when you first wake up
  • pain that is sensitive to touch
  • trouble walking
  • numbness or tingling
  • paralysis

About 90% of spinal cancers spread from other sites and don’t originate in the spine.

Other causes

Other potential causes of middle or upper back pain can include:

Thoracic back pain can affect people of all ages and demographics.

In a 2020 study where 5,397 people from one region in Russia were interviewed, researchers found that a higher prevalence of back pain, neck pain, and thoracic spine pain was associated with:

Doctors diagnose back pain with tests like:

The best treatment for thoracic back pain depends on the underlying cause. Here are some of the potential treatment options.

How can you relieve thoracic back pain at home?

You may find pain relief with:

Learn more about home remedies for back pain.

Thoracic back pain exercises

Mobility exercises and strengthening exercises may help you manage back pain. Some examples of exercises you can do at home include:

Learn more about upper back pain exercises.

Medical treatment

Medical treatment for back pain can include:

It’s a good idea to see a doctor if your pain lasts longer than a few weeks or impedes your ability to perform your daily activities. It’s important to see a doctor right away if:

  • you have severe pain
  • the pain started after a traumatic injury
  • you also have a fever
  • there’s noticeable disfigurement in your back

Some causes of thoracic back pain may be preventable. Some ways you can prevent back pain include:

Here are some frequently asked questions that people have about thoracic back pain.

Where is thoracic back pain located?

Thoracic back pain is located in your middle or upper back. You may feel it along your spine or on either side of your spine

Is thoracic pain serious?

Thoracic pain has many different causes. Many causes are mild, but some causes like herniated disks can be serious.

What are some thoracic back pain red flags?

Symptoms that may indicate that your back pain is serious include:

  • numbness or tingling
  • inability to move a limb
  • intense pain
  • paralysis
  • pain that gets worse over time
  • new bladder or bowel concerns
  • fever
  • weight loss

Thoracic back pain has many potential causes. Many causes are mild and heal with home remedies. Some potential causes, like herniated disks, can be serious and require medical attention.

It’s a good idea to visit a doctor if your pain doesn’t resolve after a few weeks or if you have severe pain. They can help diagnose the cause of your pain and recommend treatment options.