Pain in Upper Back When Breathing: Causes and Treatments

Apr 22, 2024 | 6 min read

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Pain in your upper back when breathing can stem from various issues, including muscle strains, respiratory conditions, and spinal abnormalities. Ignoring this symptom can lead to complications such as chronic pain, reduced mobility, and in severe cases, irreversible damage. 

pain in upper back when breathing

What Causes Pain in the Upper Back When Breathing?

Experiencing pain in your upper back when breathing can be alarming and uncomfortable. This pain may be the result of various conditions, each affecting the body in different ways. Understanding these causes can help you address the discomfort more effectively and take appropriate measures to prevent or treat it. Here are some of the most common causes:

Muscle Strain

Muscle strain is frequently associated with pain in the upper back when breathing. This type of pain often arises from overuse or injury to the muscles and ligaments supporting the spine. Breathing deeply expands the rib cage and consequently stretches the muscles attached to it, which can exacerbate discomfort if those muscles are strained. Prevention tips include:

  • Engaging in regular stretching and strengthening exercises tailored to the back and core.
  • Ensuring proper posture when sitting and standing to avoid undue strain on the back muscles.
  • Avoiding sudden, forceful movements during daily activities or exercise.


Pleurisy is an inflammation of the pleura, the double-layered membrane surrounding the lungs and lining the rib cage. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), pleurisy affects the tissue covering the outside of the lungs, causing it to swell because of an infection. This condition can cause a sharp, stabbing pain that worsens during breathing. Symptoms include:

  • A sharp pain in the chest or upper back that intensifies with deep breathing, coughing, or sneezing.
  • A feeling of tightness in the chest, making it difficult to breathe deeply.

Understanding and recognizing these symptoms is crucial for seeking timely medical intervention, which can alleviate the underlying inflammation.

Fractured Vertebra

A fractured vertebra in the upper back can lead to significant pain when breathing. This type of injury is commonly caused by severe impacts such as those from falls, sports injuries, or car accidents. Pain description:

  • A sudden onset of sharp, intense pain that may be localized to the site of the fracture but can also radiate around the rib cage.
  • Increased pain with movements of the spine or deep breathing.

Immediate medical assessment is vital to manage a fractured vertebra properly and prevent further injury.

Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety and stress can manifest physically as pain in various parts of the body, including the upper back. When anxious, individuals might unconsciously tense their back muscles, leading to discomfort that is noticeable when breathing. Recognizing this connection can be beneficial in managing anxiety-induced back pain through relaxation techniques and stress management.

Several conditions affecting the lungs can also cause pain in the upper back when breathing. These include:

  • Pneumonia: An infection that inflames the air sacs in one or both lungs, which can fill with fluid or pus, causing pain that may worsen when breathing deeply.
  • Lung Cancer: Tumors in the lungs can press against the pleura, leading to pain in the upper back, especially noticeable when taking deep breaths.
  • Pulmonary Embolism: A blood clot that travels to the lungs and blocks blood flow can cause sudden and severe upper back pain alongside other symptoms like shortness of breath and chest pain.

Spinal Issues

Conditions that affect the spine's structure, such as scoliosis, kyphosis, and osteoporosis, can lead to upper back pain when breathing. These conditions alter the normal curvature of the spine, which can put additional stress on the back muscles and ribs:

  • Scoliosis causes a sideways curvature of the spine, leading to uneven muscular strains.
  • Kyphosis involves an excessive forward rounding of the back, which can be painful when moving or breathing.
  • Osteoporosis weakens bones, making them susceptible to fractures; if these occur in the vertebrae, they can cause pain during respiratory movements.

Signs and Symptoms to Watch For

When dealing with pain in the upper back when breathing, it's crucial to be aware of certain signs and symptoms that could indicate more severe conditions. Recognizing these can help you determine when to seek immediate medical attention. Here’s what you should watch for:

  • Severe chest pain: If the pain in your upper back is accompanied by intense chest pain, it might indicate serious conditions like a heart attack or pulmonary embolism.
  • Difficulty breathing: Sudden or severe difficulty breathing, especially if it feels like you can't catch your breath, could be a sign of lung conditions or cardiovascular issues.
  • Fever and chills: If back pain is accompanied by a fever, it could suggest an infection such as pneumonia.
  • Unexplained weight loss: Losing weight without trying could be a sign of a more serious health issue, including cancer.
  • Numbness or weakness: Any numbness or weakness in the limbs or body could indicate nerve damage or spinal issues.

In addition to these symptoms, if you experience a sudden increase in pain that doesn’t seem to subside with rest or over-the-counter pain relief, it’s important to consult a healthcare provider.

For those unsure whether their symptoms warrant a doctor’s visit, an online Symptom Checker is a valuable tool. It helps you understand possible health conditions based on the symptoms you input. However, it's crucial to remember that while this tool can provide insights, it does not replace a professional medical diagnosis.

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How to Diagnose Upper Back Pain

Diagnosing upper back pain accurately is essential for effective treatment. Misdiagnosis can lead to ineffective treatments that might exacerbate the problem rather than alleviate it. Here are some common diagnostic tests used to understand the underlying causes of upper back pain:

  • X-rays: This is often the first imaging technique used. X-rays can show the alignment of the bones and check for signs of arthritis or broken bones but cannot visualize soft tissues like muscles.
  • MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging): MRI scans are useful for viewing soft tissues, including discs, muscles, and nerves. They can help identify issues like herniated discs or spinal stenosis.
  • CT Scan (Computed Tomography): Combining X-rays from various angles, CT scans provide a more detailed cross-sectional view of the spine than regular X-rays. This can be particularly helpful in diagnosing complex spinal problems.

Treatment Options

When it comes to treating pain in the upper back when breathing, there are several approaches depending on the underlying cause. Here are some effective treatment options:

Physical Therapy

Physical therapy is crucial for restoring function and alleviating pain. Techniques like strengthening exercises, stretching, and pain relief exercises can improve mobility and reduce pain. Physical therapists may also use methods such as ultrasound therapy, electrical nerve stimulation, and manual therapy to help patients recover.


Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and other pain relievers are commonly prescribed to reduce inflammation and alleviate pain. It's important to use these medications according to a healthcare provider's instructions to avoid side effects and ensure effectiveness.

Home Remedies

  • Ice/Heat Therapy: Applying ice packs can reduce inflammation and numb sharp pain. Heat therapy, on the other hand, relaxes and loosens tissues and stimulates blood flow to the area.
  • Rest: Avoid activities that exacerbate the pain, but also try to stay as active as your health allows. Long periods of inactivity can make your recovery slower.
  • Proper Posture: Maintaining proper posture can prevent further strain or damage. Ergonomic adjustments in your daily activities or workspace can also play a significant role in treatment and prevention.

Surgical Options

Surgery may be necessary for severe cases, such as those involving structural problems in the spine (like herniated discs or severe scoliosis) or significant injuries. Common procedures include spinal fusion, discectomy, or laminectomy, each tailored to specific conditions.

Alternative Treatments

  • Massage: Can help reduce muscle tension and pain, improve circulation, and increase flexibility.
  • Quitting Smoking: Smoking cessation is crucial, as smoking can exacerbate pain and slow down the healing process due to its impact on circulation and tissue oxygenation.

Frequently Asked Questions

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  • Upper back pain when breathing can stem from various conditions including muscle strain, pleurisy, spinal disorders, lung-related illnesses, and even anxiety. Recognizing the root cause is crucial for effective treatment.
  • Immediate medical attention is required if you experience severe chest pain, difficulty breathing, fever, unexplained weight loss, or if the pain is sudden and severe. These symptoms could indicate a more serious underlying condition.
  • Physical therapy for rehabilitation and pain reduction, medications such as NSAIDs for managing inflammation, home remedies like ice/heat therapy and maintaining good posture, surgical options in severe cases, and alternative treatments including massage and quitting smoking.
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