If back pain occurs when a person breathes, it can signal an underlying medical condition. In some cases the pain is sharp, and possible causes range from inflammation or infection of the chest to spinal curvature and lung cancer.

Back pain while breathing can also indicate a medical emergency, such as a heart attack or pulmonary embolism, particularly if the person is also experiencing shortness of breath or chest pain.

In this article, we investigate some possible causes of back pain while breathing and describe when to see a doctor.

Scoliosis

Scoliosis is a sideways curvature of the spine. Although it can affect people of any age, it typically occurs in preteens or young teenagers.

In some people, the spine can become so curved that it places extra pressure on the lungs, making breathing painful.

Symptoms of scoliosis can include:

  • back pain

  • weakness and numbness in the hands and feet

  • uneven shoulders, hips, or ribcage

  • difficulty standing up straight

  • problems walking

  • shortness of breath

Treatment for scoliosis depends on how curved the spine is. For people with mild-to-moderate curvature, a doctor may recommend wearing a back brace. More severe scoliosis may require surgery to straighten the spine.

Heart attack

In some cases, back pain while breathing can be a symptom of a heart attack. This is a life-threatening issue that requires immediate medical assistance.

A heart attack can occur if the blood flow to the heart's muscles suddenly becomes blocked, by a blood clot, for example.

Symptoms of a heart attack can include:

  • chest pain

  • a sense of pressure or fullness in the chest

  • pain in one or both arms

  • jaw pain

  • shortness of breath

  • lightheadedness

  • nausea and vomiting

People with symptoms of a heart attack should contact or visit emergency services immediately.

Treatment depends on the type and severity of the heart attack. When a heart attack is severe, the doctor may pass a type of catheter through the groin or wrist to open the blocked artery.

Obesity

Carrying excess weight can place extra pressure on a person's back, joints, and other parts of the body. Some people with obesity find it uncomfortable or even painful to take full, deep breaths.

Losing weight, for example through a calorie-restricted diet and regular exercise, may help alleviate back and joint pain.

People who are having difficulty maintaining a healthy weight may wish to speak to a doctor about possible hormonal causes, such as low thyroid function.

Lung cancer

According to the American Cancer Society, lung cancer often does not cause symptoms in the early stages. However, a common symptom of lung cancer is chest pain that usually gets worse during deep breathing or coughing.

If the cancer spreads to other organs, it may cause bone pain in a person's back or hips. Also, a tumor in the lungs can press on nerves in the spine, affecting a person's breathing and causing back pain.

Other symptoms of lung cancer can include:

  • a chronic cough

  • coughing up blood or blood in the mucus

  • frequent or recurring respiratory infections

  • shortness of breath

  • wheezing

  • hoarseness

  • difficulty swallowing

  • unexplained weight loss

  • a loss of appetite

Treatment for lung cancer depends on a number of factors, including:

  • the type of lung cancer

  • the location, size, and stage of the cancer

  • the person's overall health

Treatment options can include surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy.

Kyphosis

Kyphosis is a condition that causes the spine to curve forward, which can lead to a hunched posture.

This curvature can develop during adolescence, follow a spinal injury, or result from aging.

Kyphosis can also cause back pain, swelling, and balance issues. Symptoms may get worse over time, which can lead to difficulty breathing or eating in some people.

Treatment for kyphosis can involve attending physical therapy, wearing a brace, and taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen. For severe kyphosis, a doctor may recommend surgical treatment, such as a spinal fusion.

Pulmonary embolism

A pulmonary embolism occurs when a blood clot develops in one of the arteries that supplies blood to the lungs. This can block the flow of blood, which can be life-threatening.

A person with a pulmonary embolism often experiences pain while taking a deep breath, as well as pain in the upper back.

Other symptoms can include:

  • chest pain

  • coughing, and possibly coughing up blood

  • a rapid heartbeat

  • dizziness

  • leg swelling

A pulmonary embolism is a medical emergency and people with these symptoms should seek immediate assistance.

Treatment options include anticoagulant medications to break down the blood clot and a surgical procedure to remove or bypass the clot.

Pleurisy

Pleurisy is inflammation of the pleura, which are two thin membranes that line and protect the chest and lung cavities. This inflammation can make breathing difficult and cause a sharp pain that can spread to the shoulders and back.

Other symptoms of pleurisy can include shortness of breath, coughing, and a fever.

Injuries, infections, and cancer can cause pleurisy, and some people with autoimmune conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, are also more likely to develop it.

Treatment for pleurisy depends upon the underlying cause. For example, doctors may prescribe antibiotics to treat bacterial infections. Steroid medications can reduce the inflammation and relieve pain.

Pneumonia

Pneumonia is an infection that causes the lung's tiny air sacs to fill with fluid. It can occur in one or both lungs.

Symptoms of pneumonia vary in severity, but people may experience chest, abdominal, or back pain when breathing or coughing.

Other symptoms of pneumonia can include:

  • fever and chills

  • coughing up phlegm

  • shortness of breath

  • a loss of appetite

  • wheezing

  • vomiting

When bacteria are responsible for the infection, a doctor may prescribe antibiotics. When a virus is responsible, supportive treatments are available. Severe pneumonia may require hospitalization.

When to see a doctor

People with severe, persistent, or worsening back pain should see a doctor. This is particularly important when the pain occurs alongside tingling or numbness in the hands and feet.

Seek immediate medical assistance for back or chest pain that accompanies:

  • shortness of breath or difficulty breathing

  • severe coughing or coughing up blood

  • dizziness, light-headedness, or loss of consciousness

  • pain in one or both arms

  • swelling in the legs

  • weakness or numbness

Summary

Back pain while breathing may be a sign of a serious underlying condition or even a medical emergency, so it is important not to ignore the symptom.

People with severe, persistent, or worsening back pain should see a doctor. Anyone with symptoms that could indicate a heart attack or pulmonary embolism should receive emergency medical attention.

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