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  • Dr. James Fonner

Possible Causes of Upper Back Pain When Breathing

Experiencing back pain when breathing can be the result of an underlying medical condition. Back pain can develop from an injury to your upper back muscles. In some cases, it can be a result of a health condition that affects your lungs.

Upper back pain while breathing can also indicate an emergency requiring an immediate attention, like a heart attack. This is primarily true if the person is also experiencing chest pain.

Other symptoms cause upper back pain, and looking out for these symptoms would help pinpoint the exact cause of pain. Chest pain comes with many complications; it can result in shortness of breath, which can lead to a decline in one's quality of life.

In this article, we would look at different causes of upper back pain and when to see a doctor for medical advice.

Possible causes of upper back pain

Lung Cancer

If you have recently been diagnosed with lung cancer, it's vital to be conscious of back pain. The early symptoms of cancer of the lungs include pain in the shoulder, neck, and even in the knee.

However, symptoms may differ depending on the sex of the individual and personal habits like smoking or drinking.

Symptoms of Lung Cancer

  • Recurring respiratory infection

  • Shortness of breath

  • Persistent cough

  • Fatigue

  • Upper back pain

  • Unexplained weight loss

If you begin to notice any of these symptoms, book an immediate appointment with your doctor. Usually, it takes a significant time between developing symptoms and the diagnosis of cancer of the lungs.

Even if you don't smoke or drink, don't dismiss the fact that it could still be cancer.

Treatment for lung cancer is dependent on the stage of cancer, your health, and your preferences. In some cases, a person might even decide to skip treatments, that's if the treatment options' effects outweigh the possible benefits.

When that's not the case, your doctor might suggest options like radiotherapy, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, or surgery.

Fractured Vertebra

A fractured vertebra is due to a break in the bones of your thoracic spine, which is your upper back. It may cause serious complications if the vertebrae are broken, as this can impair your daily movement, and you may require a long time to recover.

When you have a fractured vertebra, you may experience intense pain in your upper back, and in few cases, it can lead to bruising. You can also experience loss of sensation in your upper back and chest area for a while.

It would be best to visit an emergency department for medical attention when you have a fractured vertebra, so an X-ray can be carried out to know the extent of the injury. This would also help your doctor in determining the best treatment method for you.

Your doctor may recommend a physiotherapy program where you would be given home exercise instructions to help with your movements and strengthen your muscles. Other options to treat a fractured vertebra include:

  • Electrotherapy

  • Soft tissue treatment

  • Massage

It's crucial to get reviewed immediately you have fractured vertebrae, so your chance of full recovery is sure.


According to medical experts, obesity is a disease that involves excess accumulation of fat and can lead to series of health problems.

Your spine is designed to support the weight of your body, but when there's excess weight, it forces the spine to compromise and take on the excess weight.

In some cases, obesity results from a medical underlying condition, but it's a major contributing factor to upper back pain. Obesity stems from a combination of personal diet, inherited factors, and exercise.

Upper back pain isn't only age-related, and you may want to attribute it to just the normal aging process, but if you are overweight, the chances of you developing upper back pain are high.

If you are overweight, you might experience difficulty breathing, upper back pain when breathing, feeling out of air, poor flexibility, and unhealthy posture.

Common Causes of Obesity

  • Excess liquid calories

  • Inactivity/Idleness

  • Certain medications

  • Stress

  • Lack of physical activity

  • Type 2 diabetes

  • Sleep apnea

  • Osteoarthritis

There are many tools available to combat obesity, and you can get started by talking to your physician before it escalates into a chronic condition. Alternatively, try to exercise and eat healthy, to shed off extra weight.

Even if you feel unsure of whether you are obese and are just concerned about your weight, you can talk to your doctor about obese management.


Pleurisy is the inflammation of the pleura lining the lungs, and it is characterized by chest or back pain while breathing.

This condition happens when there is an accumulation of fluid between the two layers of the pleura. So, when these tissues get inflamed, there is usually a sharp pain that worsens when you breathe in.

Pleurisy is a result of various health conditions, such as:

  • Infection

  • Cancer

  • Tuberculosis

  • Obstruction of lymph channels

Common symptoms associated with pleurisy include upper back pain when breathing, pain in the shoulders and upper back area. Some patients might experience sharp pain when they take a deep breath.

The level of pain determines the diagnosis of pleurisy in the chest. Your doctor may ask you to breathe in deep breaths to examine your chest cavity and give a diagnosis.


Scoliosis is a medical condition that occurs when there is a curve or twist in the spine. This curve can lead to the pulling of the rib cage and cause pain in the muscles.

Scoliosis appears mainly in a person's teenage years, but it can also occur in infants. People who have scoliosis tend to lean in one direction while walking, and there is mostly a visible curve at their backs.

Scoliosis can lead to back pain, tiredness due to muscle strain, serious pain in the leg at the base of the neck, and acute numbness in the leg.

To give a diagnosis for scoliosis, your doctor might ask you to tilt to your side to observe if your spine looks curved.

types of scoliosis

Types of Scoliosis

  • Congenital scoliosis

  • Neuromuscular scoliosis

  • Degenerative scoliosis

Most people who have scoliosis don't need surgery, but it's important to get medical attention if you notice you may have scoliosis. However, if the degree curve is above 25 degrees, the doctor might recommend using a brace to the person, and if it's above 45 degrees, the doctor can recommend surgery to correct the spine. Other treatments for scoliosis include:

  • Chiropractic treatment

  • Exercises

  • Casting

  • Brace


Pneumonia is an infection that leads to the inflammation of the lungs' air sack (alveoli).

When the alveoli are filled up (with pus or fluid), the person may experience difficulty breathing, fever, cough, and even back pain when breathing.

Pneumonia symptoms can sometimes be so mild that you would barely notice them—your body's reaction to pneumonia results from age, overall health, and the type of infection.

If you notice even a mild change in your breathing, then you should see a doctor for medical advice because pneumonia can cause pain while breathing.

Pneumonia can be difficult to diagnose sometimes because the symptoms vary among individuals. However, your doctor might ask questions about the symptoms you are experiencing to know if the infection is caused by a virus or bacteria.

Your medical history would also help give a proper diagnosis, and a series of tests would be carried out, like chest x-ray, blood test, CT scan, and sputum test.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Why Does My Back Hurt When I Take a Deep Breath?

If you have back pain when breathing or when you take a deep breath, it can be an underlying cause that needs to be reviewed by a doctor. Some medical conditions cause back pain, such as pneumonia, muscle strain, slipped disc, or even an infection. To get an accurate diagnosis, you need to see your doctor for medical advice.

Can a Pulled Muscle in Your Back Hurt When You Breathe?

If you have accidentally caused a strain on the muscles at your back, you are bound to feel upper back pain when breathing or even by just breathing.

Can Lung Pain be Felt in the Back?

In rare cases, back pain can be an early inductor of lung cancer. If you feel any upper back pain while breathing and you worry that something might be off with your body, then you should see your doctor and avoid the risk of it getting worse.

How do I Know If My Back Pain Is Serious?

If you are experiencing severe upper back pain that doesn't improve with rest, it could be a sign of emergency that may need urgent attention. When you keep experiencing chronic pain in your shoulders or glutes, it could mean a nerve compression situation. As a general rule, if your upper back pain doesn't subside after a week of home care, then you may need to visit your doctor.


Upper back pain can result from a medical condition and may cause a medical emergency if ignored.

People with persistent upper back pain should book an appointment with a doctor, mostly if the pain occurs along the shoulders, hands, neck, ribs, and feet. Any back pain accompanied by swelling of the legs, dizziness, and coughing up blood should receive medical treatment or see a chiropractor in Columbus Ohio.

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