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Thoracic Discogenic Pain Syndrome Clinical Presentation

  • Author: Gerard A Malanga, MD; Chief Editor: Sherwin SW Ho, MD  more...
Updated: Dec 23, 2015


The diagnosis of thoracic discogenic pain syndrome can be challenging. The relative rarity of the condition makes it a diagnosis that is not often considered. Further, the presentation of thoracic discogenic pain syndrome is variable and may resemble that of cervical or lumbar discogenic pain, which is much more common. When considering the diagnosis of thoracic discogenic pain syndrome, pertinent aspects of the patient history include the duration of symptoms, the extent of pain and weakness, and the presence of bowel or bladder symptoms.

Duration of symptoms

Thoracic discogenic pain syndrome most commonly manifests insidiously, with no history of a significant trauma. The initial symptom is usually pain, which then progresses to either radiculopathy or myelopathy to varying degrees. Nannapaneni and Marks described a subset of patients that is young and often presents with a more definite history of trauma.[6] These patients tend to have centrolateral disc herniations that either precipitate initial symptoms or intensify existing ones. These patients also tend to present with contralateral pain and sensory disturbances with ipsilateral weakness resembling Brown-Sequard syndrome.


Pain is the most common symptom in thoracic discogenic pain syndrome and is the presenting symptom in approximately 60% of affected patients. The quality and location of the pain depend on the location of the disc pathology and whether or not neural elements have been compromised. Purely discogenic pain may be dull and localized to the thoracic spine. Although less common, upper thoracic disc herniations may manifest as cervical pain and lower thoracic disc herniations may manifest as lumbar back pain. Pain may also be referred to the retrogastric, retrosternal, or inguinal areas, resulting in misdiagnoses such as cholecystitis, myocardial infarction, hernia, or nephrolithiasis.

According to Schellhas et al, annular tears may also have referral patterns based on the anatomic location of the tear.[5] Anterior tears may refer pain to anterior extraspinal sites, such as the ribs, chest wall, sternum, or visceral structures. Lateral tears can produce radicular pain to either visceral or musculoskeletal sites. Posterior tears typically produce back pain, in either a local or diffuse pattern.

When a herniated disc compromises thoracic nerve roots, the patient may present with the symptoms listed above as well as radicular pain. This pain may be intermittent or constant and is usually described as electric, burning, or shooting in nature. The distribution is often bandlike, spanning the anterior chest wall. The T10 dermatomal region is most often described as the focus of pain, irrespective of the level involved. When cord compression and myelopathy are present, pain can be in any dermatome distal to the site of compression.

Sensory disturbances

Sensory disturbances may be the presenting symptom in approximately 25% of patients with thoracic discogenic pain syndrome. Numbness is the most commonly reported sensory disturbance, but dysesthesias and paresthesias in a dermatomal distribution may also be reported. The absence of these findings does not exclude thoracic discogenic pain syndrome, but, when present, they are highly suggestive of the diagnosis. A more concerning presentation of sensory disturbances is a wider distribution below the suspected thoracic disc herniation. This is consistent with myelopathy due to cord compression.


Weakness may be the presenting symptom in 17% of patients with thoracic discogenic pain syndrome. The motor nerves of the thoracic spinal segments supply the abdominal and intercostal muscles. Although weakness of these muscles may occur, it is unlikely to be an early presenting symptom. Patients are more likely to present with weakness in the lower extremities when compression and myelopathy are present.

Bladder symptoms

Bladder symptoms (eg, incontinence) are the presenting symptom in only 2% of patients. However, bladder symptoms are not uncommon when cord compression and myelopathy have occurred. These patients may also have bowel incontinence.




The musculoskeletal assessment should include a thorough examination of the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spine and an evaluation of the abdominal and hip musculature. The findings are nonspecific in the diagnosis of thoracic discogenic pain syndrome, but they may reveal concomitant myofascial pain or patterns of weakness and/or inflexibility that can predispose the patient to thoracic discogenic pain syndrome. These findings are crucial in tailoring conservative treatment to the specific needs of the patient.


A patient with a thoracic radiculopathy from a herniated thoracic disc may have altered sensation to light touch or pinprick along a dermatomal pattern. However, if a sensory level is established, such that sensation is consistently altered below a specific dermatome, cord compression and myelopathy should be strongly considered. The thoracic dermatomes generally follow a bandlike distribution across the back and chest. Some common landmarks to aid in examination are the nipples for T4, the xiphoid process for T7, and the umbilicus for T10.


Motor examination should include testing of muscle strength and an evaluation of muscle tone. Strength testing of the abdominal muscles is often not part of a routine examination, but it should be performed in the evaluation of thoracic discogenic pain syndrome. Lesions at T9 and T10 can paralyze the lower abdominal muscles but spare the upper abdominal muscles, producing the Beevor sign, which is an upward movement of the umbilicus when the abdominal wall contracts. Having the patient sit upright and then observing for any asymmetric contractions of the rectus abdominus may also be helpful. A pattern of lower extremity weakness associated with spasticity or hyperactive reflexes is a serious finding in patients with thoracic discogenic pain syndrome; it is indicative of myelopathy. Care must be taken to exclude other more common causes of these findings, such as cervical and lumbar myelopathy.


A careful examination of the reflexes is critical when determining the degree of upper and lower motor neuron involvement. Hyperactive reflexes signify an upper motor neuron lesion above the level at which the spine is being tested, whereas diminished reflexes indicate a lower motor neuron lesion in the dermatomes being evaluated.

Testing of the abdominal reflex can be performed by stimulating the skin overlying the abdominals. The expected response is contraction of the underlying muscles. In male patients, testing of the cremasteric reflex can be performed by stroking the skin on the medial side of the thigh next to the scrotum. The normal response is the scrotum on the side being tested is pulled superiorly.

Upper extremity reflexes should be normal unless the patient has concomitant cervical pathology. Patellar and Achilles reflexes are normal in patients with purely discogenic pain or a thoracic radiculopathy. Hyperactive patellar reflexes, Achilles reflexes, or clonus may be seen in persons with cord compression and myelopathy. If decreased patellar or Achilles reflexes are found, lumbosacral pathology should be considered.

Provocative maneuvers

Physical examination maneuvers that induce nerve root tension and provoke radicular pain should be performed to help rule out cervical and lumbosacral pathology and to evaluate for thoracic discogenic pain syndrome. The Spurling maneuver, consisting of cervical compression, extension, and ipsilateral rotation, may reproduce symptoms due to cervical radiculopathy. A straight-leg raise test or slump test may reproduce symptoms from a lumbosacral radiculopathy. Neck flexion can provoke symptoms due to thoracic disc protrusions below the midthoracic level.


A number of gait deviations may be observed in patients with thoracic discogenic pain syndrome. These may be due to a pain avoidance strategy or to weakness if myelopathy is present. A common gait deviation in patients with herniated discs is the "sciatic list." Patients often lean away from the herniated disc in order to relieve pressure on the disc and reduce symptoms.



Up to 90% of herniated discs in the thoracic spine are due to a degenerative process. As a normal part of aging, the water content of discs decreases, leading to decreased disc height and impaired capability to absorb the axial loads of the spine. Disc herniations, annular tears, and endplate degeneration all can occur.

Trauma can be an important factor in 10-20% of patients. In patients with symptomatic thoracic disc herniations for which trauma is implicated as the cause, a twisting or torsional movement is often involved. Participation in any sport that involves axial rotation of the spine can potentially increase the risk of disc herniation. These types of forces may be observed in sports such as golf, in which axial rotation of the spine is required at the top of the backswing, with subsequent uncoiling and hyperextension observed through the downswing and follow-through.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Gerard A Malanga, MD Founder and Partner, New Jersey Sports Medicine, LLC and New Jersey Regenerative Institute; Director of Research, Atlantic Health; Clinical Professor, Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey-New Jersey Medical School; Fellow, American College of Sports Medicine

Gerard A Malanga, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine, North American Spine Society, International Spine Intervention Society, American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, American College of Sports Medicine

Disclosure: Received honoraria from Cephalon for speaking and teaching; Received honoraria from Endo for speaking and teaching; Received honoraria from Genzyme for speaking and teaching; Received honoraria from Prostakan for speaking and teaching; Received consulting fee from Pfizer for speaking and teaching.


Qing Tai, MD, PhD Staff Physician, Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Rutgers New Jersey Medical School

Qing Tai, MD, PhD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Academy of Spinal Cord Injury Professionals, Society for Neuroscience

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Irfan Alladin, MD Staff Physician, Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Rutgers New Jersey Medical School

Irfan Alladin, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Received salary from Medscape for employment. for: Medscape.

Russell D White, MD Clinical Professor of Medicine, Clinical Professor of Orthopedic Surgery, Department of Community and Family Medicine, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine, Truman Medical Center-Lakewood

Russell D White, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American Academy of Family Physicians, American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists, American College of Sports Medicine, American Diabetes Association, American Medical Society for Sports Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Sherwin SW Ho, MD Associate Professor, Department of Surgery, Section of Orthopedic Surgery and Rehabilitation Medicine, University of Chicago Division of the Biological Sciences, The Pritzker School of Medicine

Sherwin SW Ho, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, Arthroscopy Association of North America, Herodicus Society, American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine

Disclosure: Received consulting fee from Biomet, Inc. for speaking and teaching; Received grant/research funds from Smith and Nephew for fellowship funding; Received grant/research funds from DJ Ortho for course funding; Received grant/research funds from Athletico Physical Therapy for course, research funding; Received royalty from Biomet, Inc. for consulting.

Additional Contributors

Craig C Young, MD Professor, Departments of Orthopedic Surgery and Community and Family Medicine, Medical Director of Sports Medicine, Medical College of Wisconsin

Craig C Young, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Family Physicians, American College of Sports Medicine, American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, Phi Beta Kappa

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Stephen G Andrus, MD Sports Medicine Fellow, Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation, University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey

Stephen G Andrus, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, American College of Sports Medicine, American Medical Association, and Physiatric Association of Spine, Sports and Occupational Rehabilitation

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

James P McLean, MD Staff Physician, Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation, University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Rachael Smith, DO Consulting Staff, Mid-Atlantic Pain Institute, PC

Rachael Smith, DO is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, American Osteopathic Association, Association of Academic Physiatrists, and Physiatric Association of Spine, Sports and Occupational Rehabilitation

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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Axial magnetic resonance image of a thoracic herniated disc.
Sagittal magnetic resonance image of a lower thoracic herniated disc.
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