Causes of Upper Back Pain When Breathing and How to Treat It

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Many of us experience upper back pain at some point, caused by awkward sleeping positions, a tiring day at work, or a tough workout day after a long period of rest. More often than not, these common cases of back pains resolve on their own. But if you experience upper back pain whenever you breathe, that might not be simple pain you should treat with only painkillers. Upper back pain can be a symptom of different medical emergencies.

So what might be the causes of your upper back pain when breathing? This symptom might be a sign of a spine condition, like scoliosis, osteoporosis, spinal stenosis, or kyphosis. It may also be a symptom of other health problems, such as pulmonary embolism, heart attack, pneumonia, obesity, lung cancer, pleurisy, and others. You should seek immediate medical attention to receive a diagnosis and get started on your road to recovery with a customized treatment plan.

Possible Reasons Why Your Upper Back Hurts When You Breathe

Some patients may undermine their upper or even middle back pain only as a product of a long day. Pain relief medication might bring temporary wellness. But if you experience sharp pain in your upper body whenever you breathe, then you might need to seek immediate help from a pain expert or spine specialist. 

Severe pain in the upper back when breathing is one of the common symptoms of many health problems. This becomes a health emergency, especially when it's coupled with other symptoms, like difficulty breathing, severe pain, fever, and others that make you put your normal activities to a halt. 

The probable causes of upper back pain when breathing are muscle strain, spinal conditions, like scoliosis and osteoporosis, pulmonary embolism, heart disease, obesity, lung cancer, and pleurisy.

1) Muscle Tension

Muscle tension is one of the common causes of upper back pain when breathing. Your muscle strain may be from exercising, lifting heavy things, or an injury. The good thing is that this condition isn't usually life-threatening, but you might want to rest your muscles for a while, take pain relief medication, and apply a cold compress.

2) Spine Conditions

Since you experience back pain, whether mild or chronic pain, your doctor will consider spine problems as one of the common causes of your symptoms. These probable conditions include scoliosis and osteoporosis.


Scoliosis involves your spine having an abnormal curvature, usually sideways or in the shape of an "s" or "c". This condition might be the leading probable cause of your back pain when breathing if it's coupled with the following symptoms:

  • difficulty sitting straight
  • difficulty in walking
  • lower back pain
  • numb or weakened sensation in the hands and feet
  • poor posture
  • shortness of breath

Scoliosis may be a probable cause of your condition because the abnormal curves of your spine can apply extra pressure on your lungs when you breathe in, and it expands. The patient's gender and age are factors in the treatment plan, but doctors usually prescribe physical therapy. Patients with mild to moderate curvature will require a back brace, and those with severe cases will need surgery.


When your bones weaken due to osteoporosis, you might experience back pains whenever you breathe due to the pressure. Age and gender are important risk factors for osteoporosis. This condition is often accompanied by symptoms, like:

  • weakening grip strength
  • brittle fingernails
  • receding gums
  • reducing height
  • poor posture
  • fragile bones

Treatment for this bone problem involves medications and lifestyle modifications to reduce risks. Consult your doctor for the right treatment plan if you've had this diagnosis and how you can recover from pain.

Spinal Stenosis

Spinal stenosis may also be a possible reason why your back hurts when you breathe, but it usually happens in the neck or the cervical spine and the lower back or the lumbar spine. This condition involves having the spaces within your spine narrow and applying pressure on the spinal nerves. Your upper back pain when breathing might be a sign of spinal stenosis if your symptoms also include:

  • neck pain
  • bladder or bowel dysfunction
  • weakness of the limbs
  • balancing and walking problems
  • tingling sensation or numbness in the foot, leg, hand, or arm

The treatment for patients with this condition may involve surgery, medication, physical therapy, decompression procedures, steroids, and other solutions. Consult your doctor to receive a proper assessment and examination.

3) Pulmonary Embolism

Another possible reason why you experience severe pain in your upper back whenever you breathe is pulmonary embolism. This condition involves a disruption of the blood that flows to your lungs due to a blood clot blocking the arteries. Pulmonary embolism might come with other common symptoms:

  • dizziness
  • rapid heartbeat
  • coughing up blood
  • swelling leg

If you also experience most of the symptoms stated above, you might want to seek immediate medical attention. Pulmonary embolism is a life-threatening condition, so you shouldn’t neglect it – it might progress into serious complications and even death.

4) Heart Attack

Experiencing sharp pain in your back while breathing may also be a symptom of a heart attack – call your doctor immediately because this can be life-threatening. If possible, you may also contact emergency in your local area to receive medical help if you experience the following symptoms:

  • chest pain
  • jaw pain
  • lightheadedness
  • nausea and vomiting
  • sensations of fullness or pressure in the chest
  • shortness of breath

Back pain when breathing may be a sign of a heart attack. This medical emergency is caused by a blockage (usually a clot) in the blood vessels that disrupts the blood flow – you apply more pressure to this problematic blood circulation as you breathe. The treatment plan depends on the type and severity of your condition, but the priority is generally to restore healthier blood circulation.

5) Obesity

Obesity may also be a cause of back pain when breathing because excess fats and weight can apply pressure on your back, making it painful if you take a deep breath. Treatment for this condition involves leading a healthier lifestyle, specifically observing a balanced diet and exercising regularly. Your doctor may even suggest other procedures to make your recovery more comfortable.

6) Lung Cancer

Chest pain that worsens when breathing or coughing is one of the signs of lung cancer. You may experience upper back pain, including middle and lower back pain, once cancer has spread or metastasized to other organs. The common symptoms accompanying back pain while breathing is:

  • blood in mucus
  • chronic cough
  • coughing blood
  • recurrent or frequent respiratory infections
  • shortness of breath
  • croaking
  • loss of appetite
  • hoarseness
  • swallowing problems
  • weight loss

Cancer spreading causes bone pain at the back or hips as the lung tumor presses on the spinal nerves – this can affect your breathing and make your back painful. Treatment for this condition depends on the condition of your health and tumor. Your oncologist may consider surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy.

7) Pleurisy

Your lungs have a lining called pleura that provides protection and cushion for your lungs. When this becomes inflamed, you may experience shoulder blade pain. The chances that your condition is pleurisy are high if you also experience these symptoms:

  • shoulder pain
  • chest pain 
  • worsening pain when sneezing, coughing, and moving around
  • nausea
  • sweating
  • coughing up blood
  • dry cough
  • shortness of breath

Your back pain when breathing is caused by the pressure placed on your inflamed pleura when your lungs are expanding. You may develop pleurisy if you just had an injury or infection. Patients with cancer and autoimmune diseases. The treatment for pleurisy will depend on your underlying condition, but your doctor might prescribe antibiotics to resolve the bacterial infections.

Back Pain Risk Factors

Everyone experiences back pains at least once or twice, but some patients can experience it more than others. There are risk factors that make other people have upper back pain more easily and frequently than others. These risk factors include:

  • age
  • sedentary living
  • weight gain
  • poor lifting techniques
  • heredity
  • smoking habits
  • psychological condition

If any of these factors apply to you, you should consult your doctor. They will create a treatment plan to ensure your health and avoid medical problems.

When to Consult Your Doctor

Back pains are sometimes easy to undermine as a condition to shrug off. This may be true to an extent, but if you already have persistent and severe pain, you might want to seek immediate medical attention. Consult your doctor once you noticed some of the symptoms:

  • numbness or tingling at the hands or feet
  • swelling of the legs
  • dizziness
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • difficulty breathing
  • severe coughing
  • coughing up blood
  • pain in the arms

Your doctor should provide a thorough screening to assess your condition and give you a diagnosis. They will also come up with a treatment plan to relieve your pain and other symptoms.

How You Will Get Diagnosed

To address your upper back pain when breathing, your doctor will take the first necessary steps to arrive at an accurate diagnosis. You can expect to undergo physical examinations and tests, like:

  • MRI or CT scan
  • blood tests
  • x-ray
  • bone scan
  • nerve studies

These conditions allow them to take a better look at your condition and know what your body is telling you. The results from these tests will give your doctor clues about your diagnosis.

Treatment for Upper Backache During Breathing 

The treatment of your upper backache when breathing depends on its underlying condition, as we’ve discussed. But generally, your doctor will come up with a treatment plan to get you back on track without back pain. Your road to recovery will include the following:

  • medications
  • physical therapy
  • address underlying cause
  • lifestyle change
  • maintaining proper posture

Consult With an Upper Back Pain Specialist at Gramercy Pain Center

a doctor giving spine treatment to a patient

The upper back pain you’re experiencing whenever you breathe or take deep breaths may be caused by different health conditions — it can be a common symptom of many medical issues. To get down to the bottom of your pain and address its underlying cause, seeking a reliable medical provider is necessary to get started on your recovery.

Gramercy Pain Center is a pain center trusted by countless patients who’ve witnessed the dedication of the experts and specialists in working for their wellness and recovery. Our board-certified practitioners are experienced in diagnosing patients’ pain and addressing them. Resolve your upper back pain by leaving us a call or filling out a quote on our website to book an appointment with us.

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