Nucleus pulposus herniations are far less common in the thoracic spine than at the cervical and lumbar regions. Traditionally, diagnosis of thoracic disc herniations has been challenging because the signs and symptoms are often subtle early in their course. As a result, delays in diagnoses are common. Because they are uncommon as well as difficult to diagnosis, the neurosurgical community has sparse data on which to base good clinical decision making for the treatment of these herniations.
In this review the authors seek to place the phenomenon of thoracic disc disease into the context of its pathophysiology. After a careful evaluation of the available clinical, pathological, and basic science data, a case is made that the cause of nucleus pulposus herniations in the thoracic spine is similar to those occurring in the lumbar and cervical regions. The lower incidence of herniations is ascribed primarily to the reduced allowable flexion at the thoracic level compared with the lumbar and cervical levels. To a lesser extent, the contribution of the ribs to weight-bearing may also play a role.
Further review of clinical data suggests that thoracic disc herniations, like herniated cervical and lumbar discs, may be asymptomatic and may respond to conservative therapy. Similarly, good surgery-related results have been reported for herniated thoracic discs, despite the more challenging nature of the surgical procedure.
The authors conclude that treatment strategies for thoracic disc herniations may logically and appropriately follow those commonly used for the cervical and lumbar levels.