What It Means When Your Back Hurts While Breathing

A deep inhale can ground the mind and relax the body. However, a sudden pain that strikes in the back as your lungs expand is anything but relaxing. Experts say we can experience this kind of pain for any number of different reasons. Interestingly, while some causes may be related to the back itself, others may have nothing to do with it at all.

Back, neck, and spine specialist, Dr. Erik Ekstrom tells Summit Orthopedics, "Deep breaths can shift internal organs like the kidneys and intestines, causing discomfort, and it could also be a problem with the lungs." But these aren't the only reasons a person may experience back pain while breathing. There are several milder causes that could be to blame.

For some people, their sleeping position may be putting additional strain on the center of their spine or diaphragm. This can cause breathing difficulty or back pain while horizontal (via The Spine and Rehab Group). Experts at Keck Medicine of USC state that sleeping on one's back with a pillow underneath your head and another propping up your knees is the best sleeping position for keeping one's spine properly positioned.

Injury and related health conditions

For those with a pinched nerve, herniated disc, or heartburn, back pain can become exacerbated when breathing deeply (per Summit Orthopedics). Certain symptoms — such as shortness of breath or chest tightness — may ramp up due to increased intra-abdominal pressure as we inhale and exhale. Similarly, those who are new to wearing treatment devices like a back brace may also experience back pain when breathing. However, this pain is usually short-lived as one begins to adjust to wearing it.

Alternatively, injuries near the spinal or abdominal area can also make breathing painful, such as broken bones or torn muscles. For some people, this pain may resolve as the injury heals, while other patients may require surgical intervention after the fact to relieve the pain. In other cases, back pain that hits while breathing may occur in relation to certain health conditions, including bronchitis, kidney stones, obesity, scoliosis, or kyphosis. Commonly seen in older adults, kyphosis is characterized by an over-curvature of the upper back (per Mayo Clinic).

More serious causes of back pain while breathing

In some instances, back pain that comes on suddenly while breathing may be indicative of a medical emergency. This can include a pulmonary embolism, or blood clot obstructing blood flow to the lungs (via The Thread). Accompanying symptoms may include weakness, shortness of breath, sudden high fever, or coughing up blood. Alternatively, breathing-related back pain can also signal a cardiovascular event needing urgent care. Angina is a condition in which the heart is lacking sufficient oxygen supply and often manifests in the form of chest pain. If coupled with shortness of breath, emergency intervention is required. The same is true for heart attack, which is also associated with back or chest pain and shortness of breath.

Finally, lung cancer may potentially be related to back pain if the cancer has infiltrated the spine or chest area. The reason is that compression of the spine by a tumor can prompt pain as one breathes or coughs. Usually indicative of late-stage lung cancer, early detection efforts can save lives.