Thoracic Strain

A Few Facts About Thoracic Strain

Thoracic strain involves the muscles of the mid and upper back. To understand what constitutes a thoracic strain it may be helpful to explain a few things about the part of the body under discussion. The spinal column consists of three parts, the cervical spine, made up of the vertebrae in the neck, the thoracic spine, consisting of the vertebrae from the shoulders to the waist, and the lumbar spine, which consists of the vertebrae from the waist down to the tail bone. The region of the lumbar spine is commonly referred to as the lower back, and the region of the thoracic spine is called the upper back.


A thoracic strain therefore is one affects the muscles of the upper back. One can also suffer a thoracic sprain, which is a different situation, although in mild cases it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between the two. Whereas a strain involves irritation of injury to a muscle, a sprain affects ligaments or joints, and is often the more serious of the two disorders.

A Thoracic Strain Is Not Common - Short of suffering trauma as the result of a serious accident, damage to the thoracic muscles are not particularly common. A thoracic strain, when it does occur is most often mild, which is not to say that it does not cause any discomfort. A low level injury to the back can be very uncomfortable, even quite painful, even tough the nature of the injury may not be particularly serious.


When we suffer strains affecting the back muscles, they are most apt to happen in the neck muscles (cervical) or the lower back (lumbar). The reason for this is that these two regions are constructed with mobility in mind, while the upper back, the thoracic area, is constructed with strength and stability in mind. The thoracic spine consists of 12 vertebrae, each of which attaches to a pair of ribs. Nine of these rib pairs join together in the chest area at the sternum, the other 3 pair being "floating” ribs. The result is a relatively strong and stable, though slightly flexible, rib cage. The stability of the rib cage has the effect of protecting the thoracic muscles in the back from sudden or excessive movement, and consequent damage or injury.

Strain Happens - Still, a thoracic sprain can and does happen. This type of sprain most often happens to athletes, who use their back muscles more than most, and are apt to injure those muscles when moving a weight when in an awkward or off-balance position. Non-athletes can also suffer a thoracic strain by using these same muscles in such activities such as heavy yard work. In this case the strain usually occurs because the muscles have not been used for some time, and are stressed when suddenly called upon to perform a task, like raking leaves, or hauling material in a wheelbarrow. A mild version of a thoracic sprain can even occur as a result of poor posture, or sitting over a computer keyboard for an extended period of time.

Mild To Severe Strain - A thoracic strain may be mild. A muscle as been stretched or stressed, but no tearing, except possibly at a microscopic level, has occurred. A medium strain indicates that muscle tearing has occurred, or the tendon attaching muscle to bone has been injured. Whereas a mild strain usually involves low-level pain, a medium strain is often accompanied by a loss of strength in the muscle involved, and significantly more pain. A thoracic strain is said to be severe when there has actually been a rupture of a muscle and/or tendon. A fourth condition is chronic strain. This is usually mild, but recurring, and occurs with constant overuse of a muscle or muscle group. The example cited above, hovering over a computer keyboard for long periods of time, is a situation which could contribute to chronic strain.

Treatment - Treatment for a mild thoracic strain, and even at times a more moderate strain, usually consists of a period of rest, the taking of pain pills, and in the case of swelling, alternating hot and cold treatments (heat lamps and ice packs). Massage can be very effective as well as long as the injury is not severe. In the event a severe strain occurs, the course of treatment needs to be determined by a physician. If pain persists at any level, it is best to consult with a physician, as if proper treatment is not given, a chronic situation could result. No one wants a chronic back problem, thoracic or otherwise, if they can avoid it.