Why Does My Back Hurt When I Breathe?

A woman in a white t-shirt and grey shorts sits up on the edge of the bed as she holds her hands on her mid to lower back.
Summary
  • Back pain is a common problem experienced by millions of Americans. The treatment options for back pain depend on the cause.
  • Though back pain can be caused by an injury and treated with pain relief medication while it heals, it could also be an indicator of a more serious condition, such as lung cancer.
  • Treatments for back pain include physical therapy, injections, pain medication, surgery, or a combination of these.
  • Back pain when breathing is not normal, so it’s best to seek medical attention if your pain does not resolve within a few weeks.

Back pain is among the most common types of pain experienced by adults in the U.S.

Almost 65 million Americans have suffered a recent bout of back pain, with some 16 million Americans living with chronic back pain.

There are various reasons why people may experience back pain when breathing, and sometimes it could be an indication of a serious underlying condition.

In this article, we’ll cover the causes of back pain when breathing, which symptoms to watch for, the treatment options to consider if you have this condition, and when to seek medical attention.

What is Back Pain?

Back pain is a common condition that can occur at any age. It can feel like a dull ache, sharp pain, or a burning sensation. It can affect just the back or other parts of the body as well.

Acute back pain can cause frustration and restrict movement that make it difficult to perform daily tasks. However, if left untreated, back pain can lead to complications such as chronic pain, spinal stenosis (spinal narrowing), permanent nerve damage, loss of mobility, fatigued muscles, and depression.

An adult in an eggshell-colored button-down shirt sits in an office chair. Their left hand is holding their mid-back, and their right hand is on a bottle of medication.

What Are the Different Types of Back Pain?

There are three different types of back pain. Being able to identify the type of back pain you have can help doctors provide the correct treatment.

  • Acute pain: This pain typically occurs after a particular activity or injury, like lifting something heavy or falling off a ladder. Depending on the severity of your injury or pain, you may want to visit the doctor. If the swelling persists and the pain doesn’t go away within a few weeks, seek medical attention.

  • Subacute pain: This type of back pain takes longer than 12 weeks to heal. Those with subacute pain may experience intermittent pain and discomfort each time they perform certain movements. A medical professional will be able to assess whether your injury requires additional treatment or surgery to heal.

  • Chronic pain: This pain persists for longer than 12 weeks, and some individuals may live their whole lives trying to manage it. Unless you developed the pain shortly after an injury, chronic pain can be tricky to diagnose. Sometimes, after the body has healed from an injury, back pain will remain. Treatment is then prescribed to relieve pain and manage symptoms.

How Can Breathing Cause Back Pain?

If you have an existing spinal injury or back pain, breathing can put further pressure on spinal nerves. Your lungs, as they expand and contract, can move internal organs around, applying pressure to your spine.

Taking deep breaths can also cause back spasms as these muscles stretch when you breathe.

Breathing, much like coughing, increases intra-abdominal pressure on your spinal cord, worsening conditions such as herniated discs.

What Are Some Possible Causes of Back Pain?

Injuries

Bruised or broken vertebrae can cause sudden pain while breathing, especially if the injury is located close to the abdomen. Back pain associated with injuries can get worse when you take a deep breath and may continue even after the injury has healed. Sometimes a surgical procedure is required to resolve this.

Scoliosis

Individuals with scoliosis (incorrect spine alignment) may experience chest pain, muscle spasms, and various respiratory issues. Incorrect alignment of the spine can result in back pain and breathing difficulties.

Obesity

People who are overweight may experience difficulty breathing under normal circumstances, in addition to their muscles and nerves being subjected to increased pressure. Strained muscles near the spine can hurt when you take deep breaths.

Herniated disc

A slipped disc is an injury that occurs in the spine when a disc tears and jelly-like fluid leaks out. If the disc or the fluid presses against spinal nerves — especially the sciatic nerve — the movement of your lungs can cause back pain when breathing.

Chest infection

Conditions like bronchitis and pneumonia cause inflammation of the lung lining, resulting in swelling, which makes it difficult to breathe and can cause sharp pains in the chest and back.

Cancer

Tumors located in the lungs can press on nerves and cause pain each time you breathe. Back pain related to lung cancer can feel like a dull ache or a sharp pain, like a pinched nerve.

If lung cancer is the cause of your back pain, there will likely be other symptoms as well, such as coughing up blood, weight loss, bone pain, digestive issues, and more.

Heart attack

Back pain is not a common symptom of a heart attack, but there are times when pain can radiate from the chest into the back. To recognize back pain associated with a heart attack, you’ll have to look for additional symptoms, such as nausea, sweating, fatigue, and pain in the arm or jaw.

Kyphosis

A healthy upper spine is naturally slightly curved forward, but if the curve is more than 50 degrees, this is an abnormal spine referred to as kyphosis or a hunchback. If the condition impacts breathing, surgery may be required to rectify the abnormality.

Pulmonary embolism

If a blood clot forms in the arteries that supply the lungs with blood, a pulmonary embolism occurs. This condition may cause upper back pain whenever someone breathes. Other symptoms include an increased heart rate, coughing, swollen legs, dizziness, and chest pain.

Strained muscle

Intercostal muscle strain may occur due to trauma or overuse. The intercostal muscles are found between the ribs, and they expand or contract during breathing. If these muscles are strained in the back, an individual may experience discomfort, mild pain, or severe pain, depending on how damaged the muscles are.

Osteoporosis

People with osteoporosis have weakened bones and are at a higher risk of fracturing their vertebrae. If the spine is damaged, especially the upper part, pain can occur when breathing.

What Are the Symptoms of Back Pain While Breathing?

Back pain while breathing can range from a dull ache to a sharp pain each time you inhale and exhale.

Pain accompanied by breathing is not normal, and searching for the symptoms mentioned in the above section can help you gain a better understanding of the underlying cause of your pain.

If, for example, you have back pain accompanied by any of the following symptoms, you should contact your doctor immediately:

  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Restricted movement/limited mobility
  • Sharp pains in the chest and back
  • Coughing up blood
  • Trouble breathing
  • Chronic cough
  • Bone pain
  • Nausea
  • Sweating
  • Fatigue
  • Pain in the chest, neck, or jaw
  • Increased heart rate
  • Swollen legs
  • Dizziness
  • A herniated disc or fractured bones
Key Point: Can Upper Back Pain While Breathing Be an Emergency?

Upper back pain while breathing can indicate a medical emergency. If any of the following symptoms are present, contact your doctor:

  • There is pain between your shoulders, and at the top of your back.
  • You’ve recently recovered from an injury or accident.
  • You are immunocompromised.
  • You have trouble controlling your bladder or bowels (incontinence).
  • Your pain is worse at night.
  • You do not find pain relief after resting.
  • The pain prevents you from doing daily activities.
  • Coughing, sneezing, or defecating makes the pain worse.
  • You feel sick.
  • There’s swelling in your back.

What Are the Treatments for Back Pain While Breathing?

Depending on the cause of your back pain, your age, and other factors, your doctor will prescribe one or a combination of the following treatments to relieve back pain experienced while breathing.

A healthcare professional assesses and/or works on the back of a client.

Physical Therapy

Physical therapy is a good option if you’re struggling with mobility and need to regain strength in your upper back, neck, or shoulders. This is a great conservative treatment option for those who don’t feel comfortable with more invasive therapies. Pain medication may be prescribed alongside physical therapy to minimize any discomfort.

Injections

Back injections may be used to treat nerve damage and inflammation in the back. Nerve blocks and epidural injections are typically used to relieve back pain, and may also be used to diagnose which nerves are causing the pain. Your doctor may prescribe a combination of steroids and anesthetics. Injections can often provide quick, effective back pain relief.

Medication

Popular first-line treatments for back pain include oral and topical medications. Depending on the cause and the level of your pain, the doctor may prescribe:

  • Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relief medication, such as ibuprofen or nonsteroid anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Ointments, creams, and gels (topical treatments)
  • Narcotics
  • Muscle relaxants
  • Antidepressants (especially duloxetine)

Massage Therapy

Massage therapy may be prescribed as a treatment to complement physical therapy or medication. With this treatment, it’s possible to target specific back muscles for effective, lasting pain relief.

Massage therapy can speed up the healing process and help you resume daily activities. It’s particularly useful for lower back issues.

Practicing Good Posture

By correcting your posture and introducing exercises that strengthen your back, core, and buttocks, you’ll relieve muscle tension.

Maintaining good posture can help anyone, but it is particularly important for those who spend most of their time sitting down and suffer from issues like back and neck pain.

Being mindful of good posture will keep your bones and joints correctly aligned to ensure the proper functioning of your back muscles.

Treating the Underlying Cause

Addressing the underlying cause of your back pain may alleviate your pain, but there’s a chance you may be left with some back pain once the issue has been dealt with. In a case like this, pain killers, massage therapy, physical therapy, or a combination of other treatments may be prescribed.

Losing Excess Weight

An individual carrying extra weight may be more prone to breathing difficulties and back pain, so weight loss may be a solution in this case. However, sustainable, healthy weight loss does not happen overnight.

Be sure to consult a doctor and possibly a dietician if losing weight is a treatment option for your back pain.

When Should I See a Doctor?

No matter the cause, experiencing back pain while breathing is not normal. If you’ve had a recent back injury, there may be some pain while breathing, but if it does not heal within a few weeks, scheduling a doctor’s appointment is the wise thing to do.

The pain you’re experiencing might be easily remedied with a few physical therapy sessions and some pain killers, but it may also be an indication of a serious underlying disease.

The sooner you schedule a doctor’s appointment, the sooner you can receive the treatment you need to feel better again.

Where Can I Learn More About Back Pain and Breathing Difficulties?

If you’ve experienced any of the symptoms discussed in this article, or if you’re concerned that the back pain you're experienceing when breathing may be an indication of an underlying illness, it’s time to speak to a medical professional. With LifeMD, you can consult with a board-certified doctor or nurse practitioner, right from home. Make an appointment today.

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This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice. Consult a healthcare professional or call a doctor in the case of a medical emergency.

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