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What are Common Causes of Back Pain When Breathing?

By Meshell Powell
Updated May 17, 2024
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Back pain when breathing can be a troublesome symptom with several potential causes. Most cases are related to strained muscles, although more serious health conditions, including heart problems, can have the same symptoms. Since treatment begins with an accurate diagnosis, any kind of pain while breathing should be reported to a doctor right away. If the symptoms develop suddenly, the patient should report to the nearest emergency room in order to rule out any potentially life-threatening medical emergencies.

Muscle strains are common and are the leading cause of back pain when breathing. A muscle typically becomes strained, or pulled, due to overuse. Once the muscle strain has been accurately diagnosed, the patient will generally be instructed to take over-the-counter or prescription medications and rest the affected muscles while they heal. Heat or ice therapy may also be recommended.

A more serious cause of back pain when breathing is a collapsed lung, also known as a pneumothorax. In this condition, pressure builds up in the chest cavity, potentially interrupting the blood supply to the rest of the body. This is a medical emergency, and delayed treatment is potentially fatal.

Haemoptysis, or coughing up blood from the lungs, can also cause a back ache while breathing. Several conditions can have this symptom, including tuberculosis, bronchitis, and lung cancer. Sometimes coughing up blood originates in the digestive tract instead of the lungs, but any time a patient coughs up blood it should be reported to a doctor so the appropriate medical testing can be ordered.

Pulmonary disease, which affects the lungs, frequently leads to back pain when breathing. Other symptoms may include shortness of breath, coughing, and chest pain. Swelling of the lung tissue, often leading to pain or discomfort, is possible in the patient with pulmonary disease. Other conditions such as asthma or emphysema may also be present. Pulmonary disease can worsen over time, so a prompt diagnosis is essential in order to try to avoid potential complications.

Even though most instances of back pain when breathing are not life threatening, many serious medical conditions involve this symptom. For this reason, a doctor should always be consulted when any of these symptoms are present just to be certain. For instance, tumors in the lungs do not generally cause pain, but in some situations the tumor will press against surrounding tissue and nerves, potentially leading to pain. Early diagnosis in this situation could save the life of the patient.

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Discussion Comments
By literally45 — On Jul 06, 2013

@SarahGen-- Absolutely, I had a very bad upper-respiratory infection last year. I had never coughed so much in my life. Because of a hacking cough that lasted almost a month, my lung muscles became sore and painful. Whenever I tried to breathe in deeply, I had a sharp upper back pain like yours. I couldn't get my lungs to expand much for a few weeks.

Just take it easy and rest for a few weeks, I think the pain will go away. If it doesn't though, you should see a doctor because it could be something more serious.

By SarahGen — On Jul 05, 2013

When I breathe, I get a sharp pain in my back, right below my lungs. I just got over an upper-respiratory infection, could this be the cause?

By burcinc — On Jul 05, 2013

A herniated disc in the back can also cause pain when breathing.

When my herniated disc was diagnosed, one of the questions my doctor asked me was if I had lower back pain when I sneezed and coughed. I said yes and after a physical exam, he sent me for an MRI which diagnosed my hernia.

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