Back pain when breathing can have many different causes.

The pain may be caused by an injury to either the bones or muscles in your back. Or it may be caused by a medical condition that affects your internal organs such as your lungs or heart.

In this article, we take a closer look at 11 possible causes of back pain when breathing, along with the symptoms and treatment options for each cause.

A strained muscle can be caused by an injury or from repetitive use. If you’ve strained a muscle in your back, you’ll probably notice a sharp pain on the side of your body where the injury occurred.

Symptoms of a strained muscle include:

  • sudden pain when breathing and moving
  • muscle spasms
  • reduced range of motion
  • trouble bending over

Strained muscles usually aren’t serious and may get better by themselves with rest. However, a proper diagnosis from a medical professional can help determine if your injury is a muscle strain or a more serious issue.

A pulmonary embolism is a blood clot in an artery of your lung. The condition is potentially life threatening and requires immediate medical attention.

The most common symptom of pulmonary embolism is shortness of breath. It may also cause severe pain in your chest, shoulder, back, or neck on the affected side.

Other symptoms include:

Scoliosis is an abnormal side to side curvature of your spine. It most commonly occurs during the rapid growth spurt associated with adolescence. The exact cause of scoliosis isn’t always known, but developmental issues, genetics, and neurological conditions may contribute.

People with scoliosis may have pain when they breathe due to pressure from their ribcage and spine against their heart and lungs.

Symptoms of scoliosis include:

  • back pain
  • pain with breathing
  • uneven shoulders
  • one hip higher than the other

Symptoms of scoliosis can appear gradually and might not be noticeable at first.

If you think you may have scoliosis, it’s a good idea to visit your doctor for a proper diagnosis.

More weight around the abdomen, neck, and back can lead to breathing problems and discomfort when breathing. People with obesity can develop obesity hypoventilation syndrome.

Symptoms of obesity hypoventilation syndrome include:

  • trouble breathing at night
  • feeling sluggish throughout the day
  • feeling out of breath
  • headaches

The symptoms of a bruised rib or broken rib are similar. An X-ray, CT scan, or MRI is often needed to differentiate the two.

Both types of rib injuries can cause pain at the site of the injury when you inhale, sneeze, laugh, or make other jerking motions with your abdomen.

Other symptoms of a bruised or broken rib include:

  • discoloration around the injury
  • muscle spasms or twitching
  • tenderness around the injury

Pleurisy is a condition that causes inflammation of the lung lining. This lining, known as the pleura, consists of two thin membranes that line and protect each lung. The severity of pleurisy can range from mild to life threatening.

When this lining becomes inflamed, it can make breathing difficult. You may feel a sharp, stabbing pain on one or both sides of your chest. Or you may feel constant pain in your chest. The pain often gets worse when you breathe. The pain may also spread to your shoulders and back.

Other symptoms include:

Treatment depends on the underlying cause:

  • Antibiotics may be prescribed to treat bacterial infections.
  • Medications may be prescribed to relieve a cough or to break up blood clots or large amounts of mucus.
  • In less severe cases, over-the-counter medications may help reduce pain and inflammation.

Between each of your vertebra is a rubbery disk that absorbs shock. Each of these disks has a jelly-like center and a harder outer edge. A herniated disk, or slipped disk, occurs when the disk ruptures and the jelly-like center ruptures through the outer layer.

When the slipped disk presses against a nearby nerve or your spinal cord, it can lead to pain, numbness, or weakness of one of your limbs. The most common spot to experience a herniated disk is in your lower back.

A herniated disk may cause back pain when you breathe. Other common symptoms include:

  • pain and numbness on one side of your body
  • tingling or burning near the injury
  • muscle weakness
  • pain that extends to your arms or legs
  • pain that gets worse after standing or sitting

If you think you have a herniated disk, you should see a medical professional right away to avoid permanent nerve damage.

Pneumonia is an infection that causes inflammation in the air sacs in your lungs. This causes the air sacs to fill with fluid, making it difficult to breathe. It can occur in just one lung or both lungs.

Symptoms can vary in severity and range from mild to life threatening. The most common symptoms include:

Pneumonia can be caused by bacteria, viruses, or fungi.

If pneumonia is caused by a bacterial infection, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics. Antifungal medications may be prescribed to fight fungal pneumonia. Many cases of viral pneumonia clear up on their own with rest and at-home care.

In severe cases, you may need to be hospitalized.

Lung cancer often doesn’t cause symptoms in the early stages.

A tumor in your lung that presses against the nerves of your spine can cause back pain on one side. Also, if the cancer spreads to other organs in the body, it may cause bone pain in the back or hips.

Other symptoms of lung cancer include:

If you have any of these symptoms, be sure to follow up with your doctor for a proper diagnosis.

A heart attack occurs when a blockage cuts off the blood supply to your heart. As a result, the heart muscle begins to die.

Heart attacks can cause a feeling of pressure or pain in your chest that can spread to your back. The symptoms can vary from person to person, and not everyone has the same types of symptoms.

Some of the most common symptoms include:

A heart attack can be life threatening and is a serious medical emergency. If you think you’re having a heart attack, call 911 immediately.

A fractured vertebra in your back is most often caused by traumatic injury. Pain from a fractured vertebra often gets worse with movement.

The symptoms of a fractured vertebra can vary depending on what part of your back is injured. Damaged bone can press against your spinal cord and cause symptoms such as:

  • numbness and tingling
  • weakness
  • bladder dysfunction

Having osteoporosis puts you at an elevated risk of developing a fractured vertebra. If you suspect that one of your vertebrae might be broken, be sure to get medical attention as soon as possible.

Some of the causes of back pain when breathing are potentially serious. If you notice any of the following symptoms, it’s important to get immediate medical attention:

  • shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • loss of bladder or bowel function
  • fever
  • coughing up blood
  • severe pain
  • numbness or tingling

There are many potential causes of back pain when breathing. Some of these causes may need prompt medical attention, which is why it’s important not to ignore this type of pain.

See your doctor if you have severe or worsening back pain when breathing. If you think you have symptoms of a heart attack, pulmonary embolism, or severe pneumonia, get medical attention immediately.

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Last modified: 19th December 2020