In some cases, a pinched nerve in the upper back can cause chest pain. However, upper back pinched nerves are less common than those that occur in the neck or lower back.
Pinched nerves can cause pain to radiate or travel into different areas of the body. When the pinch occurs in the neck, a person may notice pain in their arms. If it occurs in the lower back, the pain may travel down the leg.
A pinched nerve in the upper back can cause chest pain to occur, but a pinched nerve does not occur at this location as often as in other areas.
This article reviews how pinched nerves cause chest pain, its symptoms, causes, and more.
Pinched nerves can occur in different regions of the spine. What type a person has depends on the location.
Thoracic radiculopathy is the medical term for a pinched nerve that occurs in the upper back. It can cause chest and torso pain. However, it is an uncommon type of pinched nerve, so
Cervical radiculopathy occurs in the neck and may cause loss of feeling, a tingling in arms and legs, and weakness. Lumbar radiculopathy occurs in the lower spine and
Thoracic radiculopathy can present differently in people according to the exact location of the pinched nerve. The most common symptoms include:
- a burning or radiating pain in the scapular, back, chest, or abdominal wall pain
- a “band-like” chest pain, often around a specific rib
- pain worsens with coughing or straining
The pain typically occurs on one side of the body.
If the pinched nerve is in other areas of the spine, such as the lower back or neck, a person likely will not experience chest pain. Instead, they may feel pain in their neck, lower back, and extremities.
There are various potential causes of chest pain ranging from physical issues to gastrointestinal and heart-related causes.
Some common causes of chest pain
- injury due to bruised or broken ribs, muscle strains, or pulls
- heart issues, such as angina or a heart attack
- digestive issues, such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- lung-related issues, such as pneumonia
- an aneurysm
Thoracic radiculopathy is uncommon, so not all healthcare professionals will immediately suspect it.
Experts indicate that if a doctor believes a pinched nerve is a potential source of chest pain, they will try conservative treatments for 4–6 weeks. After that, they can test with an MRI scan to confirm the diagnosis.
Otherwise, a physical examination and review of symptoms will not be enough to diagnose a pinched nerve as the cause of chest pain.
If a person consults a healthcare professional for chest pain, they will likely review recent activities and medical history, including medications, as well as examine the area. Further tests may check for other potential causes of the person’s chest pain.
If someone is experiencing chest pain that comes on suddenly without a clear cause, they should seek medical attention.
Treatment will depend on the exact underlying cause of the chest pain. If a healthcare professional finds that a pinched nerve is causing the chest pain, they may recommend one or more of the following treatments:
However, these treatments need long-term evidence of their effectiveness.
Experts recommend the use of the following therapies:
- transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation
- nerve pain medications, such as gabapentin or pregabalin
- opioids, although people should use these with caution due to the potential for misuse and addiction
- surgical intervention to relieve the pinched nerve
Living with pinched nerves
A person living with pinched nerve pain may find that taking over-the-counter NSAIDs may help with the discomfort in their chest.
They may also find that hot or cold therapy, such as heating pads or hot or cold packs, may help.
People can speak with a healthcare professional if they experience symptoms of a pinched nerve, including chest pain. A doctor can assess a person’s symptoms, help diagnose any underlying condition, and provide treatment options. They can also rule out other conditions that may cause these symptoms, such as GERD or an aneurysm.
- feeling lightheaded, faint, or weak
- cold sweat
- pain or discomfort in the back, neck, jaw, or one or both arms
- shortness of breath
Pinched nerve pain can affect the chest if the affected nerve is in the upper part of the back. The pain may feel like a band around a specific rib. Other more common locations for a pinched nerve are the lower back and neck, which do not typically cause chest pain.
Doctors will often misdiagnose chest pain from a pinched nerve due to several more common causes of chest pain. Diagnosis often involves pain management and an MRI to check for the pinched nerve in the back.
Treatments can vary and include physical therapy, NSAIDs, steroid injections, electrical nerve stimulation, anticonvulsants, opioids, or surgical interventions. Which treatments a doctor recommends may vary according to a person’s pain level and other factors.