What does thoracic spondylosis mean? Causes, symptoms, and treatment

thoracic spondylosisWhat is spondylosis?

Spondylosis is a degenerative process that affects the vertebral discs of the spine. It is a condition that commonly occurs with age as the bones progressively wear down from prolonged use, leading to bone spur (osteophyte) formation. Spondylosis is a blanket term used to describe general deterioration in the spine. The spine generally comprises three regions involved in back pain: the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar vertebrae.

More than 80 percent of people over the age of 40 display evidence of spondylosis on X-ray studies. It is believed that most cases are related to genetic predisposition and injury history.

What is thoracic spondylosis?


Since spondylosis is a broad term, you may be wondering: what is thoracic spondylosis? A basic thoracic spondylosis definition is that it’s a condition that can lead to narrowing of the spinal canal in the upper and mid-back, resulting in the compression of the spinal cord and nerve roots. Long term, this compression can result in damage to these structures, causing symptoms such as weakness and numbness in the upper extremities, impaired walking, and even pain that radiates to the arm.

Back pain is one of the most common types of pain people suffer from as they get older. This is often due to the natural deterioration of the spinal bones as a result of age or normal wear and tear after years of use. The thoracic vertebrae are in the middle of the spine, with most movements of the vertebral column observed in the cervical (neck) and lumbar (lower back) regions.

Thoracic spine degeneration is not as common as its cervical or lumbar equivalents. It’s predominately caused by age-related risk factors. The spinal cord is made up of several bony segments separated by pads of cartilage that cushion the vertebrae from impact and general stress on the spinal column. These gel-like cartilage pads are called discs, and as time goes on, natural body changes lead to their dehydration and loss of effectiveness, resulting in back pain. There is also the risk of bulging discs or disc herniation as the spondylosis worsens.

A lack of protective cartilage also allows the spinal bones to grind together, leading to progressive damage.

Spondylosis of the thoracic spine may also result in a condition called spinal stenosis, in which the spinal canal narrows, causing nerve root compression and pain. The development of bone spurs can place pressure on spinal nerves, leading to pain as well.

What are causes and symptoms of thoracic spondylosis?

As mentioned previously, thoracic spondylosis causes can largely be narrowed down to age and wear and tear. Common thoracic spondylosis symptoms include:

  • Stiffness of the mid-back or upper back
  • Weakness of muscles
  • Trouble walking (ambulating)
  • Pain in the upper back, especially in the morning
  • Numbness and tingling in the upper and lower extremities
  • Discoordination

Diagnosing and treating thoracic spondylosis

Commonly it is chronic back pain that prompts people to seek professional help. This is the time when a case of thoracic spondylosis will be diagnosed as detailed imaging studies of the spine can be ordered. Imaging often takes the form of a spinal X-ray, CT scan, or MRI. The doctor is looking for any signs of degeneration and spinal damage.

Most of the time, uncomplicated cases of thoracic spondylosis can be successfully managed using conservative therapy or non-surgical options. These thoracic spondylosis treatments include:

  • Cortisone injections
  • Prescription muscle relaxers
  • Prescription nerve pain medication
  • Prescription narcotic medication
  • Over-the-counter medication for pain or inflammation
  • Heat/ice application
  • Traction
  • Ultrasound
  • Electrical stimulation
  • Bracing
  • Exercise
  • Behavior modification

Thoracic spondylosis physiotherapy

Physiotherapy, when used in combination with pain-relieving medication, can provide exceptional results via exercises that improve the strength and range of movement in the thoracic vertebrae. Physiotherapy helps to minimize symptoms and can be done at home.

There are several forms of physiotherapy that aim to improve the symptoms of thoracic spondylosis. These include:

Hydrotherapy: Using the pressure-relieving effects of water, hydrotherapy can treat a variety of bone- and joint-related pain disorders. It differs from swimming in that it involves exercises you do in warm water, typically at a temperature of 91ºF to 97ºF. A trained physiotherapist usually demonstrates how to do the exercises in the water, making adjustments as needed to suit individual patients.


Taping: This is a technique that is used for injury prevention or rehabilitation. Physiotherapists are specially trained in how to effectively apply tape to the skin to keep specific muscles or bones stable. Benefits of using this form of physiotherapy include:

  • Injury prevention
  • Quicker return to sport or work
  • Protection of injured soft tissue, such as ligaments, tendons, or fascia
  • Encouragement of normal movement
  • Pain reduction
  • Reduced risk of re-injury
  • Improved stability of joints
  • Reduced swelling
Postural realignment: If your symptoms are the result of years of poor posture, a realignment of the spinal bones, combined with postural exercises, can help reduce back pain symptoms. Often this includes an assessment of your current posture, helping to identify any tight or weak muscles that may be causing your back pain. Next comes advice on how you can make changes to your posture by sitting, standing, and handling objects properly. There is also discussion of exercises that help improve your posture by stretching and strengthening the spinal muscles.

Soft-tissue treatment: This involves the assessment and treatment of any soft-tissue injury causing pain and abnormal function. Soft tissue includes ligaments, tendons, muscles, and fascia. Types of soft-tissue treatments include myofascial release, massage, heat therapy, stretching, and electrotherapy.

Benefits of soft-tissue treatment include:

  • Faster recovery from injury
  • Reduced risk of re-injury
  • Greater functional ability
  • Accelerated healing process
  • Increased mobility
  • Increased muscle strength
  • Reduced swelling
  • Increased soft tissue length
  • Increased range of motion
  • Reduced pain



Related Reading:

Lumbar spondylosis: Causes, symptoms, and treatment

Cervical spondylosis (cervical osteoarthritis) or neck arthritis: Causes, symptoms, and treatment