If you are experiencing upper back pain, it's important that you get a proper diagnosis to determine the cause of the pain. There are three potentially life-threatening conditions that can cause upper back pain even though the conditions have nothing to do with the back. Because they are life-threatening, it's important to get a diagnosis to rule out these conditions. Here's what you need to know.
What it is: Chiari malformation is the herniation of the cerebellar tonsils (lower part of the brain) into the opening for the spinal canal. The herniation can cause nerve damage in the region, which can affect how the muscles of the neck and upper back work. When muscles don't work correctly, it can cause pain in the upper back.
Other possible symptoms: The most common symptom of Chiari is a severe headache, with pressure, that can be worsened by cough or strain. If the herniation blocks the spinal fluid in the spinal canal, it can cause a wide range of symptoms throughout the body, including problems with balance, dizziness, blurred vision, and tingling and numbness in the extremities.
Who to see: A neurosurgeon is who you will need to see to get a proper diagnosis of Chiari malformation. He or she will send you to get an MRI to determine if there is a herniation of your cerebellar tonsils. You may also need to get a cine MRI to determine if the flow of your spinal fluid is not blocked by the herniation.
Prognosis for the condition: You may need surgery to give the herniation some room if the spinal fluid is blocked. If symptoms suddenly worsen, it's important to head to the ER because symptoms of this condition can be fatal.
Dealing with back pain: Physical therapy can help strengthen the neck and upper back muscles, which can help in reducing pain. If you need spinal manipulation or physical therapy and have Chiari malformation, it is important to tell your back pain specialist prior to treatment. Great care needs to be taken by the physical therapist so the herniation is not affected.
What it is: A myocardial infarction is the medical term for a heart attack. This is commonly caused by a blockage in the coronary arteries, which causes the heart to lose its supply of blood and oxygen. Given the location of the heart is in close proximity to your upper back, you can experience upper back pain when your heart is stressed. Sometimes, upper back pain is felt before a complete blockage in the affected coronary artery.
Other possible symptoms: Other possible symptoms of a heart attack includes chest pain, rapid or erratic heart beat, shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and pain in the neck, jaw, arms, and shoulders.
Who to see: If you think you may be experiencing a heart attack, call 911 for an ambulance immediately. Do not attempt to drive yourself to the ER, or you could lose control of your vehicle. A cardiologist can assess your condition and diagnosis you with myocardial infarction, but it may be the attending physician at the ER.
Prognosis for the condition: The sooner you get medical attention, the better your outcome will be. In the future, you'll need to take better care of yourself by making lifestyle changes to avoid blocking your coronary artery again.
Dealing with back pain: After your health improves, you may still experience back pain from the ordeal of having gone through a heart attack due to your muscles tightening up from the pain. You will be a candidate for physical therapy to rehabilitate the muscles in your back. Any time you experience unexplained back pain in the future, it will be a good idea to speak with your cardiologist before getting physical therapy.