Relief Strategies for Pain in Upper Back When Breathing

09 Mar 2024, by

Dr. Lusine Badalian

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Pain in the upper back when breathing can significantly impact daily life, stemming from various causes such as muscle strain, respiratory conditions, or spinal issues. Recognizing risk factors and understanding potential complications are crucial steps toward effective management. Treatment often involves physical therapy, pain management, and exercises tailored to individual needs. Prevention focuses on maintaining good posture, regular exercise, and avoiding risk-enhancing habits. With proper care, it's possible to alleviate pain and improve quality of life.

pain in upper back when breathing

Causes of Pain in Upper Back When Breathing

Understanding the root causes of pain in your upper back when breathing is crucial to addressing the issue effectively. This discomfort can arise from various factors, each affecting the body in unique ways. By identifying what specifically triggers your pain, you can take the first step toward finding relief.

Muscle Strain

One of the most common culprits behind upper back pain is muscle strain. Overexertion, poor posture, or sudden, awkward movements can lead to muscle sprains or strains in the back, resulting in pain that intensifies with breathing. This is because the act of breathing involves the ribs moving and the back muscles contracting, which can exacerbate any existing discomfort.

Respiratory Conditions

Respiratory conditions such as pneumonia or bronchitis can also lead to pain in the upper back when breathing. Infections in the lungs can cause inflammation that spreads to the back muscles, making each breath feel painful or uncomfortable. It's important to seek medical attention if you suspect your back pain is related to a respiratory condition, as these can require specific treatments. 

A notable condition related to this type of pain is pleurisy. 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 swelling can lead to difficulty breathing and pain that radiates around the chest, significantly impacting the individual's ability to breathe comfortably.

Spinal Issues

Spinal issues, including herniated discs or osteoarthritis, can cause pain in the upper back. These conditions can affect the spine's structure and nerves, leading to pain that may worsen with movement or breathing. Diagnosing spinal issues often requires medical imaging, and treatment can vary based on the severity and specific nature of the problem.

Types of Pain in Upper Back When Breathing

Pain in Upper Left Back When Breathing

This specific type of pain may indicate an issue localized to the left side of the upper back. Causes can range from muscle strain on this side to conditions affecting the left lung or even the heart. It's essential to monitor this pain, especially if it's accompanied by other symptoms like shortness of breath or chest discomfort. Specific diseases related to this pain include:

  • Pleurisy: Inflammation of the pleura around the left lung can cause sharp chest and back pain that worsens with breathing.
  • Cardiac Issues: Conditions like pericarditis, or inflammation of the pericardium, can also manifest as pain on the left side, often mistaken for muscular pain.

Pain in Upper Right Back When Breathing

Pain localized to the upper right back can suggest problems on this side, including muscle strain or issues with the right lung. In some cases, it might also be related to gallbladder or liver conditions, given the anatomical position of these organs. Diseases that may cause this type of pain include:

  • Gallbladder Issues: Gallstones or inflammation of the gallbladder can cause pain that radiates to the upper right back.
  • Liver Problems: Conditions like hepatitis or liver abscess can also lead to discomfort in the upper right back.

Pain in Upper Back and Chest When Breathing

When pain is felt both in the upper back and the chest, it might indicate conditions that involve the lungs or the ribcage. This dual discomfort can be a sign of more serious issues like pleurisy, where the lining around the lungs becomes inflamed, or even cardiac concerns, emphasizing the need for a thorough medical evaluation.

Risk Factors for Pain in Upper Back When Breathing

Certain factors can increase your risk of experiencing pain in the upper back when breathing. Understanding these can help in adopting lifestyle changes to reduce the likelihood of pain:

  • Sedentary Lifestyle: Lack of physical activity can weaken back muscles, making them more susceptible to strain.
  • Repetitive Motion Jobs: Occupations requiring repetitive movements or prolonged periods of sitting can strain the back.
  • Smoking: Smoking can harm lung health and function, potentially leading to back pain related to respiratory issues.
  • Underlying Health Conditions: Conditions like osteoporosis, arthritis, or respiratory diseases can increase the risk of upper back pain.


Recognizing the causes, types, and risk factors associated with pain in the upper back when breathing allows for a more targeted approach in seeking relief and preventing further discomfort. In the following sections, we'll explore complications, treatment options, and prevention strategies to help manage this condition effectively.

Complications of Pain in Upper Back When Breathing

If left unaddressed, pain in the upper back when breathing or moving can lead to several complications that can further impact your health and quality of life. Understanding these potential complications can motivate individuals to seek timely treatment and implement preventive measures.

  • Chronic Pain: Without appropriate treatment, acute back pain can become chronic, severely impacting daily activities and overall well-being.
  • Decreased Mobility: Persistent pain may lead to reduced movement and stiffness in the upper back, limiting the ability to perform everyday tasks.
  • Impaired Lung Function: Severe cases, especially those related to respiratory conditions, can affect lung capacity and breathing efficiency.
  • Sleep Disturbances: Ongoing discomfort can disrupt sleep patterns, leading to insomnia and other sleep-related issues.
  • Psychological Effects: Chronic pain can also have psychological repercussions, including stress, anxiety, and depression, further complicating the condition.

Treatment for Upper Back Pain When Breathing or Moving

Effective management of pain in the upper back when breathing involves a combination of medical interventions, lifestyle changes, and self-care strategies. Tailoring the treatment to the underlying cause is crucial for achieving relief and preventing future episodes.

Physical Therapy

Physical therapy is a cornerstone of treating upper back pain. A physical therapist can design a personalized exercise program that strengthens the back muscles, improves posture, and enhances flexibility, thereby reducing pain and preventing recurrence.

Pain Management

Over-the-counter pain relievers can be effective for managing mild to moderate pain. For more severe cases, your healthcare provider may recommend other pain management strategies. It's important to use medication as directed and under the supervision of a healthcare professional.

Alternative Therapies

Some individuals find relief through alternative therapies such as acupuncture or massage. These treatments can complement traditional medical interventions by relieving muscle tension and improving spinal alignment.

Best Exercises for Pain in Upper Back

Incorporating specific exercises into your routine can significantly alleviate pain in the upper back and enhance your breathing capability. Always consult with a healthcare professional before starting a new exercise regimen, especially if you're dealing with an underlying medical condition.

  • Cat-Cow Stretch: Improves flexibility and eases tension in the spine and back muscles.
  • Thoracic Extension: Strengthens the upper back muscles and improves posture.
  • Doorway Stretch: Opens up the chest and shoulders, reducing strain on the upper back.
  • Scapular Squeeze: Strengthens the shoulder blades and supports upper back stability.

Prevention of Pain in Upper Back When Breathing

Preventing pain in the upper back involves adopting healthy lifestyle habits and making ergonomic adjustments, especially if you have a history of upper back issues or are at risk of developing them.

  • Maintain Good Posture: Proper posture reduces strain on the back muscles and spine, minimizing the risk of pain.
  • Exercise Regularly: Engaging in activities that strengthen the back and core muscles can help prevent pain.
  • Take Frequent Breaks: If you have a sedentary job, ensure you stand up, stretch, and move around regularly to relieve muscle tension.
  • Quit Smoking: Smoking can impair lung function and increase the risk of respiratory issues that can lead to back pain.


If you're unsure about the cause of your upper back pain when breathing or if the condition persists despite home treatment, consider using an online tool like Symptom Checker as a preliminary step. It can help you identify possible conditions based on your symptoms. Remember, while online tools can provide valuable insights, they should not replace professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always consult a healthcare provider to ensure you receive the appropriate care for your specific

Key Takeaways

  • Pain in the upper back when breathing can stem from various causes, including muscle strain, respiratory conditions, and spinal issues.
  • Identifying the specific location of your pain (upper left back, upper right back, or throughout the upper back and chest) can provide clues about the underlying cause.
  • Risk factors such as a sedentary lifestyle, repetitive motion jobs, smoking, and underlying health conditions can increase the likelihood of experiencing upper back pain.
  • Complications from untreated upper back pain can include chronic pain, decreased mobility, impaired lung function, sleep disturbances, and psychological effects.
  • Treatment options vary widely and may include physical therapy, pain management techniques, and best exercises tailored to alleviate specific symptoms.
  • Preventive measures, such as maintaining good posture, exercising regularly, taking frequent breaks, and quitting smoking, are essential for minimizing the risk of upper back pain.
  • Utilizing online tools like the Docus AI Symptom Checker can help identify potential conditions based on your symptoms, but should not replace consultation with a healthcare professional.


If you want to read more about upper back pain, we have an article about Relieve Upper Back Pain.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why might I feel pain in my upper left back when breathing?

Pain in the upper left back when breathing could indicate a condition affecting the left side of the body, such as pleurisy, a lung infection, or even heart-related issues. It's crucial to monitor any accompanying symptoms and consult a healthcare provider for an accurate diagnosis.

What could cause pain in my upper right back when breathing?

Pain in the upper right back when breathing can be related to muscle strain, issues with the right lung, or conditions affecting the gallbladder or liver. If this pain persists or is accompanied by other symptoms, seeking medical advice is recommended.

Why do I experience upper back pain when breathing or moving?

Upper back pain when breathing or moving can be caused by muscular strain, spinal problems, or respiratory conditions. The movement can exacerbate the pain, especially if the back muscles or spine are involved.

Why does my upper left back hurt when I breathe?

Pain in your upper left back when breathing can be attributed to several factors, including muscular issues, respiratory conditions like pleurisy, or even heart-related problems. The specific cause should be evaluated by a healthcare professional, especially if the pain is sharp, persistent, or accompanied by other symptoms like shortness of breath or chest pain.

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