Causes of back pain when breathing

Back pain when breathing can be seen as signal that you should not simply ignore. Of course, it can be harmless. Maybe you simply overdid it with sport or you worked too long in the garden. In that case, you don’t have to worry. But if the pain persists for several days, it’s a good idea to pay a visit to the doctor.

Or maybe you have poor breathing habits? Chronic breathing disorders are fairly common. In time, they can cause neck, shoulder and back pain. Your physiotherapist can teach you how to breathe in and out properly.

However, back pain when breathing in can also be a sign of a more serious disorder.
In the back, in the lungs, or even in the heart.

Do you have back pain when you breathe in? Learn here what this could mean.

Have you simply exceeded your physical limit?

Our intention with this article is certainly not to scare you. Do you have back pain when you breathe? This could be nothing to worry about. Maybe you recently engaged in hard physical activity and went a bit over your limit?

For example, doing a 100 km tour as a novice cyclist, or totally sprucing up your garden in one go because you thought it was going to rain all week. Or maybe you sat on your desk chair too long, such as working from home.

Then there’s a good chance that the pain will quickly go away. Does it persist for several days? Then you should certainly see your family doctor.

Back pain when breathing: the problem is in your back

Back pain when breathing can, of course, be a sign of a back disorder. Such disorders are painful but not life-threatening. Here we list the three most common back problems associated with pain when you breathe in.

1. Strained intercostal muscle

The intercostal muscles, as indicated by the name, are located between two adjacent ribs. They are necessary for breathing in and out. If one or more intercostal muscles is overstressed or strained, you will likely experience pain when breathing in.

Fortunately, a strained intercostal muscle is not a matter of serious concern. The pain usually goes away after a few days or a few weeks. This varies from one person to the next.

back pain when breathing strained intercostal muscle

2. Bruised or broken rib

Even for a family doctor, it is difficult to find the difference between a bruised rib and a broken rib. In many cases a visit to the radiology department is necessary.

When do you know that the cause of the combination of back pain and difficulty with breathing is probably your ribs?

  • You feel more pain when you cough or sneeze;
  • The area around the ribs is discoloured by a contusion;
  • You have cramps in the muscles around and between the ribs.

3. Scoliosis

Scoliosis means a lateral deformation of the spinal column. It is bent in the form of a C, or sometimes in the form of an S. Scoliosis can cause misalignment of vertebrae and ribs, and sometimes this misalignment displaces the lungs. This is what makes breathing difficult.

When does scoliosis arise? This often occurs at birth or during the childhood growth period. Scoliosis is mostly seen amongst girls. There are various treatments for scoliosis, including braces, physiotherapy, and operations. And of course, a good bed can also help.

Back pain when breathing: the problem is in your lungs or your heart

If you have back pain when breathing, the cause can also be in your lungs or your heart. That sounds dangerous, but is it actually? It all depends. Perhaps the back pain is caused by a poor way of breathing. Chronic breathing disorders are clearly linked to back pain. Your physiotherapist will help you learn how to breathe as well as possible.

The lungs and heart are vital organs, so three of the four disorders listed here are in fact life threatening.

1. Chronic breathing disorder

Asthma, chronic bronchitis and chronic hyperventilation are all respiratory disorders that are not obviously linked to back pain. Even so, people with breathing problems are distinctly more likely to suffer from back pain.

Why is this? People with a chronic breathing disorder often do not breathe deep enough. This means they overstress their rib cage, their neck and their shoulders, and at the same time they understress their abdomen and lower back. This sort of dysfunctional breathing can therefore cause pain over the entire length of the back.

This pain is scary, especially in the rib cage. However, you can certainly learn to live with a chronic breathing disorder. A good physiotherapist can teach you effective exercises to help you breathe better.

2. Pneumonia

Pneumonia means that the alveoli deep in the lungs are inflamed. They fill up with liquid, making breathing difficult. Depending on the severity of the pneumonia, the patient may also feel pain in the chest, abdomen and back. Other symptoms include shortness of breath, nausea, fever, and loss of appetite.

In the case of bacterial pneumonia, doctors administer an antibiotic. If it is a viral infection, antibiotics do not help, so the doctor prescribes medications that attack the virus causing the infection. In serious cases of pneumonia, the patient is always hospitalised.

back pain when breathing coughing pneumonia

3. Lung cancer

According to the American Cancer Society, it can take a long time before lung cancer shows any symptoms. Breathing problems are often a first indication: coughing, hoarseness, shortness of breath, frequent respiratory tract infections, etc. With lung cancer, the tumour or tumours are often located close to the spine. This also causes back pain.

4. Heart attack

Heart surgeons sometimes compare a heart attack to a tidal wave. There are light waves, and there are life-threatening tsunamis. With the light waves, you may not even notice that you had a heart attack. This is called a ‘silent heart attack’. However, you can tell by the symptoms: pain and pressure on the chest, difficulty with breathing, pain radiating to the arms and back, and so on. If you see these symptoms, it is a good idea to have yourself examined by a cardiologist.