What is upper back pain when breathing?

Your upper back can hurt when breathing due to injury, pulmonary embolism, pneumonia, lung cancer, and spine problems.
Your upper back can hurt when breathing due to injury, pulmonary embolism, pneumonia, lung cancer, and spine problems.

If you experience upper back pain when you breathe, it may be something to discuss with your doctor. It could be a sign of a serious disease, a spinal issue, or strain on the muscles around your shoulders and neck. For instance, people who have a rhomboid muscle strain or spasm (involuntary muscle contraction) may have overused their shoulder and arm. If you have this condition, you may feel pain in your upper back when you breathe.

Such pain can make you avoid taking deep breaths. As a result, you may not be able to take in enough oxygen, which can damage your health over time. It’s important to seek medical attention if your pain is causing you to experience difficulty breathing.

Studies have also found a relationship between the use of electronics (like computers, mobile phones, television, and video game consoles) and upper back pain.

Symptoms of upper back pain when breathing

Upper back pain mostly occurs anywhere along the spine between the base of the neck and the bottom of the ribs. Some people with upper back pain feel discomfort when they sneeze, cough, or take a deep breath.

If you have a medical condition that affects your internal organs like your lungs or heart, you may experience upper back pain while breathing.

You may also feel upper back pain in your shoulders and neck if they have been affected by a medical condition or injury.

Causes of upper back pain when breathing

Experiencing pain in your upper back while you breathe can cause confusion and frustration. Work with your doctor to identify the possible cause of your discomfort, which could be one of the following:

Injury

In most cases, upper back pain is caused by problems affecting the muscles, nerves, ligaments, and tendons connected to the spine. Injuries like a sprain, strain, or muscle tension may cause pain and other symptoms in your upper and back.

Pulmonary embolism

This condition is caused by a blood clot that travels from one part of your body to another. It’s especially common from the leg to your lung. The blood clot can block an artery and cause a sudden sharp pain in the upper back when you breathe.

Pneumonia

Since pneumonia causes shortness of breath, struggling to breathe properly may cause upper back pain.

Lung cancer

When you have lung cancer, the tumor(s) may apply pressure on the pleura, which protects your lungs from friction with the ribs. This constant irritation causes pain that you may feel in the upper back.

Spine problems

Some spine problems show symptoms of back pain when breathing. They include:

  • Scoliosis: This condition causes an abnormal curve of the spine that looks like the letter “S” or “C” when viewed from the back.
  • Problematic kyphosis: Kyphosis or kyphotic curve is the natural bend on your upper back viewed from the side. When it curves outward too much, you may experience pain in the region when breathing.
  • Osteoporosis: This condition causes a person’s bones to weaken. When it occurs in the upper back region, you may experience pain when breathing.

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When to see the doctor for upper back pain when breathing

When you’re experiencing back pain while breathing, any of the potential causes mentioned above are enough reason to see the doctor. If your pain occurred suddenly, is worsening, or hasn’t gone in a week, also call the doctor.

As soon as the symptom shows up, consult your doctor. Make sure to mention other symptoms like your back pain being associated with fever, difficulty breathing, and persistent cough.

Diagnosis for upper back pain when breathing

Diagnosing the cause of upper back pain can be challenging, requiring a physical exam and some form of diagnostic testing like an X-ray. Your doctor will be interested to know your medical history and will want to know when symptoms started, the nature of the pain, where exactly you feel it, lifestyle habits, and injury history.

Treatments for upper back pain when breathing

After discussing your upper back pain with your doctor, they may recommend one of the following treatments:

Physical therapy

If your doctor feels that you need professional help to strengthen your neck, shoulder, and upper back muscles, they may recommend physiotherapy sessions for you.

Pain medication

Your doctor may also prescribe some pain killers to help you feel better. Talk to your doctor to learn their recommendations and which medicines you should avoid.

Treating the underlying cause

Once your doctor checks you up, they may need to treat the underlying condition that is causing your pain.

Using good posture

Ensuring a good posture when sitting, walking, or lifting heavy objects can help to reduce the risk of developing upper back pain.

Massage

Getting a good massage can help loosen your muscles, get the blood flowing freely back to the painful spot.

Quitting smoking

Studies have shown that people who smoke are more likely to have chronic back pain. Abstaining from smoking can therefore help to resolve upper back pain.

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Medically Reviewed on 2/23/2021
References
American Association of Retired Persons: "9 Symptoms You Should Never Ignore."

Cedars Sinai: "Pulmonary Embolism."

Clear Scoliosis Institute: "Scoliosis Side Effects: Myth vs. Reality."

C.S. Mott Children's Hospital: "Upper and Middle Back Pain."

Dignity Health: "Upper back pain."

Duke Health: "When Can a Doctor Help Your Back Pain?"

HealthTalk: "Osteoporosis."

The Hospitalist: "Scapular Pain."

Manchester Physio: "Upper back pain."

Roswell Park: "What Causes Lung Pain in the Back?"

Weill Cornell Brain and Spine Center: "Kyphosis."

University of Rochester Medical Center: "Smoking Hurts Your Back."