Thoracic spine

Thoracic spine scans 101: spinal medical imaging & more

It’s common to think back pain always originates in the lower back or the neck. However, muscle tension and spine compression in the thoracic spine can lead to pain in the upper and middle back. The thoracic spine supports the area known as the upper back, between the collar bone and the bottom of the rib cage.

Pain experienced in the upper back can sometimes seem like it’s in a different location. Internal imaging such as X-rays, MRIs, and CT scans can help identify any upper back and thoracic spine abnormalities.

What is the thoracic spine?

The thoracic spine is the most extensive section of the spine. It's made up of 12 vertebrae that connect to the ribs. It makes up the back half of the rib cage, and it is integral in supporting the upper body and protecting the heart and the lungs.

The thoracic spine provides stability to the upper torso and is usually more resistant to pain or injury than the cervical spine (the neck).

Why do I need a thoracic spine scan?

Though thoracic pain is often associated with a muscle strain in the surrounding area, pain in this region may result from a more severe problem such as arthritis or an issue with your ribs. An internal imaging scan can provide insight into the cause of the pain and highlight any chronic problems that may go undetected from a physical exam. Even if you are not experiencing symptoms, taking a thoracic spine scan can help to assess the health of your spine and identify any underlying issues

Common causes of thoracic spine pain

People suffering from upper back pain may have muscle tension stemming from the thoracic spine to the chest and the shoulders. Other issues causing pain include:

  • Pinched nerves
  • Herniated disks
  • Osteoporosis
  • Compression fractures

Certain repetitive motions, as well as poor posture, can cause pain in the upper back. Thoracic spine pain is important to pay attention to as it is more likely to point to a serious issue than neck pain or lower back pain.

Common thoracic spine pain diagnosis

If you are suffering from pain in the thoracic spine, your doctor is likely to conduct an interview to determine lifestyle habits, as well as perform a physical exam. Depending on your symptoms, common diagnoses in the thoracic spine are:

  • Osteoarthritis: inflammation of the joint
  • Osteoporosis: weakening of the bone
  • Kyphosis: condition affecting the shape of the spine
  • Herniated disk: cartilage disk that protrudes past the vertebra
  • Scoliosis: abnormal spinal curvature

Medical imaging scans for thoracic spine pain

Severe pain in the thoracic spine is associated with the degradation of spine health. Doctors must assess the injury with an internal imaging scan. Your doctor may request a specific type of scan depending on their initial assessment.

MRI scan of the thoracic spine

Magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, uses a magnetic field and radio waves to produce internal images of the body. An MRI provides a detailed picture of a specific body part across three planes and can highlight any abnormalities causing your discomfort. A thoracic spine MRI will also highlight any inflammation or infection of the spine. It can also help identify compression fractures and give insight into your overall spine health.

CT scan of the thoracic spine

A CT (computerized tomography) scan for the thoracic spine can be used to assess bone health and degeneration. Pain in the thoracic spine is often associated with osteoporosis of the spine. This weakening of the bone can lead to compression fractures that may affect mobility and posture. A CT thoracic scan uses a concentrated X-ray beam to produce a complete picture of the spine. CT scans are less disruptive and quicker than an MRI scan, but don’t have as much detail.

Thoracic spine X-ray

An X-ray of the thoracic spine may be ordered if you have recently suffered trauma to the area. The X-ray can identify any fractures or breaks in the spine that may be contributing to pain in the upper back. It can also identify cartilage wear and tear and any tumors in the bone. The procedure is very quick. The technician will have you lie flat on the imaging table and cover areas not being scanned with a lead blanket to protect them from the small amounts of radiation from the X-rays. The images are produced quickly, and your doctor can then assess the images to diagnose any abnormalities.

How much does a thoracic spine scan cost?

Your doctor may order an X-ray of your thoracic spine if you have recently suffered trauma to the area. Your X-ray can identify any fractures or breaks in your spine that may be contributing to pain in your upper back. It can also identify cartilage wear and tear and any tumors in your spine bones. Usually, the procedure is very quick.

Your X-ray technician will have you lie flat on an imaging table and cover the areas of your body that aren't being scanned with a lead blanket to protect them from the small amounts of radiation that X-ray machines produce. The X-ray images are produced quickly, and your doctor can then use these images assess the images to diagnose any abnormalities.

Find a thoracic spine medical imaging center near me

A scan of the thoracic spine can be a preventive health measure to assess spine health or find the cause of spinal pain. If you need an internal imaging scan, explore scan.com’s reputable providers using the scan search tool. Finding a thoracic spine scan near you from our list of trusted imaging centers is quick and easy.

Resources:

  1. https://patient.info/bones-joints-muscles/back-and-spine-pain/thoracic-back-pain
  2. https://www.researchgate.net/figure/MRI-planes-for-MRI-head-scan-a-Axial-b-Coronal-c-Sagittal-MR-scanner-can-generate_fig2_338448026
  3. https://www.spine-health.com/conditions/spine-anatomy/thoracic-spine-anatomy-and-upper-back-pain
  4. https://www.treatingpain.com/news-updates/2019/july/middle-and-upper-thoracic-back-pain/
  5. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/kyphosis

FAQs

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Depending on the type of scan you're getting, imaging of the thoracic spine can take about 15 to 60 minutes.

No. A thoracic spine scan is a non-invasive test and doesn’t hurt. However, some patients may feel uncomfortable lying in one position for a long time.

Yes, it’s possible to get a thoracic spine scan without insurance. You can contact your desired medical imaging center to inquire about payment plans and options.