Back Pain When Breathing: 10 Common Causes
Published July 12, 2021
When a person’s back hurts when they breathe, it may indicate an underlying medical condition. The pain can be severe in some cases, and the possible causes range from chest inflammation or infection to spinal curvature and lung cancer.
Back pain when breathing can also be a sign of a medical emergency, such as a heart attack or pulmonary embolism, especially if the individual is also experiencing shortness of breath or chest pain.
This article will look at some of the possible causes of back pain when breathing and when to seek medical attention.
1. Broken or Bruised Rib
The symptoms of a bruised rib are similar to those of a broken rib. Often, an X-ray, CT scan, or MRI is required to distinguish the two.
Both types of rib injuries can result in pain at the injury site when you inhale, sneeze, laugh, or make other abdominal jerking motions.
Symptoms include the following:
- Severe chest or back pain when breathing
- Swelling or tenderness around the affected ribs
- Bruising on the skin
- Sensation or sound of a crack if it is a broken rib
Broken or bruised ribs heal similarly and typically resolve on their own within 3 to 6 weeks.
2. Heart Attack
A heart attack –– also known as myocardial infarction –– occurs when a section of the heart muscle receives insufficient blood.
The longer the period without treatment to restore blood flow, the more damage to the heart muscle occurs.
The most common cause of heart attack is coronary artery disease (CAD). A less common cause is a severe coronary artery spasm or sudden contraction, cutting off blood flow to the heart muscle.
The major symptoms of a heart attack to look out for include:
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Shortness of breathing (often comes with chest discomfort, but the shortness of breath may also happen before chest discomfort)
- Feeling weak, light-headed, or faint
- One or both arms or shoulders may feel pain or discomfort
- Breaking out into a cold sweat
- Discomfort or pain in the jaw, neck, or back
If you or someone else exhibits the symptoms of a heart attack, dial 9-1-1 immediately. The sooner you reach an emergency room, the sooner you can receive treatment to minimize heart muscle damage that will alleviate the back pain as well.
3. Herniated Disk
A herniated disk is a protrusion of one of the rubbery cushions (disks) that sit between the individual bones (vertebrae) that make up your spine.
A spinal disk comprises a soft, jelly-like core (nucleus) surrounded by a tougher, rubbery exterior (annulus). A herniated disk –– also known as slipped disk or ruptured disk –– occurs when a portion of the nucleus pushes through a tear in the annulus.
A herniated disk, which can occur anywhere along the spine, can irritate an adjacent nerve. Depending on the location of the herniated disk, pain, numbness, or weakness in an arm or leg may be felt as a result of it.
Signs and symptoms depend on where the disk is and if the disk is pressing on a nerve. They typically affect one side of the body and may cause back pain when you breathe.
- On one side of your body, you may experience pain and numbness
- Tingling or burning near the injury site
- Muscle weakness may also occur
- An ache that radiates into your arms or legs
- Pain that worsens after standing or sitting
Seek medical attention if your neck or back pain radiates down your arm or leg or if you experience numbness, tingling, or weakness in addition to these symptoms.
4. Lung Cancer
Around one in every four people diagnosed with lung cancer report experiencing back pain at some point following their diagnosis. Some discovered they had lung cancer after visiting a doctor to determine why their back hurt.
At times, you may experience pain due to the tumor pressing against nerves in the back or spine. Additionally, pain may indicate that your cancer has spread to your spine.
The symptoms you should not ignore are the following:
- A persistent cough
- Breathlessness associated with activity
- Respiratory infections that recur (e.g., bronchitis, pneumonia)
- Pain in the shoulder, arm, chest, or back
- Unexplained weight loss
If lung cancer continues to grow and spread, it can exert pressure on the bones that comprise the spine and spinal cord. This can result in neck, upper, middle, or lower back pain. Additionally, the pain may radiate to your arms, buttocks, or legs. As a result, you may experience numbness, weakness, or stiffness in your back or neck. If you develop symptoms of arm or leg weakness, seek medical attention immediately.
Being overweight or obese has been shown to significantly increase the risk of developing osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, degenerative disc disease, spinal stenosis, and spondylolisthesis.
The spine is designed to support and distribute the body’s weight during rest and activity. When carrying excess weight, the spine is compelled to assimilate the load, resulting in structural compromise and damage (e.g., injury, sciatica). The low back—the lumbar spine—is one of the spine regions most susceptible to the effects of obesity.
Here are the most common health risks affecting people who are obese:
- Type 2 diabetes – A chronic disease that impairs the body’s ability to process sugar, blood, or glucose.
- Some forms of cancer – Breast, colon, pancreas, esophagus, rectum, and endometrium cancers.
- Osteoarthritis – Excess weight places additional strain on your joints, resulting in cartilage degeneration.
- Sleep Apnea – A condition in which your breathing cycle is disrupted while you sleep, resulting in prolonged shallow breaths.
If your back pain is severe and debilitating, seeing a doctor is your best course of action. Initially, you may wish to consult with a family physician. However, depending on the severity of your condition and whether or not it is related to your spine, you may eventually need to see a more specialized surgeon. Occasionally, back pain may be a symptom of a much more severe condition that a physician should diagnose.
Pleurisy is a condition that causes chest pain. It is a very thin layer of tissue that surrounds the lungs. They fit snugly inside your chest, which is lined with another thin pleura layer.
These layers prevent your naked lungs from rubbing against the chest cavity wall during inhalation. To keep everything moving smoothly, a small amount of fluid is contained within the narrow space between the two layers of pleura.
When you are healthy, you are unaware of your pleura’s activity. However, if your pleura is inflamed, you will feel it.
When the pleurae become swollen and inflamed, they rub painfully against one another when the lungs expand. So when you inhale deeply, cough, sneeze, or laugh, you’re likely to experience stabbing pain in the affected area.
Pleurisy-related chest pain has symptoms that can help your doctor diagnose you. You’re almost sure to notice the following:
- A stabbing, sharp pain causes you to take shallow breaths because it worsens when you attempt to breathe deeply.
- Spreading pain to your shoulder or back
- Fever and chills
Specific individuals with pleurisy have an abnormal amount of fluid built up between their two layers of pleura. Your physician may decide to drain some of the fluid. They may do this by inserting a thin needle into the space between your pleura.
While you are recovering, painkillers and steroid medications may be beneficial. In addition, if coughing causes you excessive pain, your doctor may prescribe medication (codeine) to help you cough less.
Pneumonia is a lung infection that varies in severity from mild to severe enough to require hospitalization.
It occurs when an infection causes the air sacs in your lungs to fill with fluid or pus (your doctor will refer to them as alveoli). This will make it difficult for you to breathe in enough oxygen to reach your bloodstream.
Anyone is susceptible to contracting this lung infection. However, infants under the age of two and people over the age of 65 are at a greater risk. This is because their immune systems are weak to combat it.
The symptoms you experience will vary according to the cause of your pneumonia, your age, and your overall health. They usually develop for several days. Typical pneumonia symptoms include the following:
- When you breathe or cough, you may experience chest or back pain
- Coughing up phlegm or mucus
- Fatigue and appetite loss
- High fever, excessive sweating, and chills
- Vomiting, nausea, and diarrhea
Along with these symptoms, people with weakened immune systems –– such as elders –– may experience confusion, altered mental awareness, or a lower-than-normal body temperature.
Infants and newborns may exhibit no signs of infection. Alternatively, they may vomit, have a fever and a cough, and appear restless or exhausted.
If you develop a new cough, fever, or shortness of breath, contact your doctor to inquire about the possibility of COVID-19. Pneumonia can also result from the new coronavirus.
8. Pulmonary Embolism
A pulmonary embolism occurs when one of the pulmonary arteries in the lungs becomes blocked. It is most frequently caused by blood clots that travel to the lungs via deep veins in the legs or, in rare cases, via veins in other parts of the body (deep vein thrombosis).
Because the clots prevent blood from reaching the lungs, pulmonary embolism can be fatal. Prompt treatment, on the other hand, significantly reduces the risk of death. Preventing blood clots in your legs can help protect you from pulmonary embolism.
The symptoms of pulmonary embolism vary significantly depending on the extent of the embolism, the size of the clots, and whether you have underlying lung or heart disease.
Typical signs and symptoms include the following:
- Breathlessness (often worsens with exertion)
- Pain in the chest (with the sensation of having a heart attack)
- Pain is severe and felt when you inhale deeply
- Hard time taking a deep breath.
- Chest and back pain when you cough, bend or stoop
- Bloody or blood-streaked cough
Additional signs and symptoms of pulmonary embolism include the following:
- Heartbeats that are rapid or irregular
- Feeling lightheaded or dizzy
- Sweating excessively
- Leg pain or swelling or a combination of the two (most commonly in the calf, caused by a deep vein thrombosis)
- Skin that is clammy or discolored (cyanosis)
Scoliosis is a sideways curvature of the spine that most frequently occurs during the growth spurt immediately preceding puberty. While cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy can cause scoliosis, the majority of cases of scoliosis are unknown. Scoliosis affects approximately 3% of adolescents.
While the majority of cases of scoliosis are mild, some spine deformities become more severe as children grow. Scoliosis that is severe can be disabling. A particularly severe spinal curve can constrict the chest cavity, making it difficult for the lungs to function properly.
Scoliosis symptoms and signs may include the following:
- Unbalanced shoulders
- Uneven waist
- One shoulder blade appears to be more prominent than the other
- One hip is elevated above the other
When a scoliosis curve worsens, the spine rotates or twists in addition to curving side to side. This results in one side of the body’s ribs protruding more than the other.
Consult your physician if your child exhibits signs or symptoms of scoliosis. On the other hand, mild curves can develop without the parent or child realizing it, as they typically appear gradually and do not cause pain.
10. Strained Muscle
A muscle strain occurs when a muscle or tendon — the fibrous tissue that connects muscles to bones — sustains an injury. Minor injuries may result in a muscle or tendon being overstretched, whereas more severe injuries may result in partial or complete tears in these tissues.
Strains, also known as pulled muscles, are common in the lower back and the muscles at the back of the thigh (hamstrings).
The following are the signs and symptoms that may occur depending on the severity of the injury:
- Tenderness or discomfort
- Bruising or redness
- Limited movement
- Spasms of the muscles
- Muscle weakness
- Pain when moving or breathing
Generally, strained muscles are not severe and will resolve on their own with rest. A proper diagnosis from a medical professional, on the other hand, can help determine whether your injury is a muscle strain or something more serious.
About The Author
As a professional writer at many renowned websites Krizzia Paolyn has covered a wide range of topics in many industries. Her knack for uncovering important truths and conducting thorough research on each topic she writes about has helped thousands of people across the world.