Experiencing back pain when you breathe might be worrisome since it may point to an underlying medical condition. Do you feel discomfort in your upper back when you take a deep breath, cough, or sneeze? You could have a spinal issue or a condition affecting your internal organs. If your back pain is a symptom of severe disease, it may be something you should discuss with your doctor.

Noticing where the pain is and being aware of the accompanying difficulty in breathing can highlight the possible culprits for your back hurting. For example, pain in the upper back may be due to strain on your shoulders and neck muscles. Not all of the potential conditions are as severe as the others, but some might be indicating a medical emergency. This article why does my back hurt when I breathe studies the possible reasons your back might be hurting when you breathe and advise when you should see a doctor. 

Possible Causes of Back Pain When Breathing

Here is a list of why your back could be hurting. While not all conditions and problems are equally urgent and severe, it is helpful to be aware so that you know what to do and contact your doctor.

1) Scoliosis

Scoliosis is a condition in which the spine has a sideways curvature in the shape of an “S” or “C.” Preadolescents or young teenagers are at the most risk for this condition. Still, it can affect people from other age groups. According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS), no causes are identifiable for 80% of scoliosis cases.

In severe cases, scoliosis can become so extreme that the spine places extra pressure on the lungs. If this occurs, it makes breathing painful. 


The following are the symptoms of scoliosis:

  • Back pain
  • Numbness or weakness in the hands and feet, 
  • Difficulty maintaining posture and standing up straight,
  • Having trouble when walking,
  • Shortness of breath.


Scoliosis is generally treatable by proper medical assistance, and it depends on how severe the curvature of the spine is. Treatment for most cases may be wearing a back brace, but doctors might recommend surgery for severe scoliosis cases.

2) Problematic Kyphosis

The forward curvature of the spine is called kyphosis. The spine is divided into three sections. From the top of your spine to your lower back, these are the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spine. Although each section has a natural curve to it, problematic kyphosis is an exaggerated curvature in the thoracic portion of your spine, which is the middle section of the back.

The most common form of kyphosis is postural kyphosis. Adolescents are at the most risk for this type of kyphosis, mainly caused by poor posture. The other two kinds of kyphosis are Scheunemann’s kyphosis and congenital kyphosis, which can be more serious than postural kyphosis.


Generally, kyphosis can cause back pain, balance issues, and swelling. If the condition deteriorates, it may cause difficulty breathing or eating in some cases. 


Treatments for kyphosis include wearing a back brace, physical therapy, and taking anti-inflammatory drugs (an example being ibuprofen). In more severe cases of kyphosis – for instance, in severe congenital kyphosis – the doctor may suggest surgical treatment.

3) Lung Cancer

Back pain or pain in the hips is caused if lung cancer spreads to other organs, leading to back pain when breathing. Another possibility is that a tumor in the lungs is pressing on the nerves in the spine, causing difficulties in breathing and back pain.


The symptoms of lung cancer are not as proficient in the early stages as the American Cancer Society states. With that said, a potential early symptom of lung cancer is a pain in the chest when breathing deeply or coughing – this pain commonly gets worse with time.

Including the symptoms mentioned above, other symptoms may include:

  • Blood in the mucus or coughing up blood, 
  • Chronic cough,
  • Wheezing and shortness of breath,
  • Frequent or recurring respiratory infections, 
  • Difficulty swallowing while eating, 
  • Exaggerated and unexplained weight loss.


The main treatment options for lung cancer are chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation therapy. When treating or deciding the treatment of lung cancer, the following factors are considered:

  1. What the patient’s overall health, age, and medical history are.
  2. What the cancer type is. There are two main types of lung cancer: small cell lung cancer and the second is non-small cell lung cancer. 
  3. The location of cancer, its size, and the stage the cancer is in.

4) Arrhythmia or Heart Attack

Heart problems lead to chest and back pain, and people also experience difficulty or pain while breathing due to problems with the heart. Most heart attacks start slowly, even though there are cases in which they occur suddenly. The immediate cause of a heart attack is when the blood flow is suddenly blocked due to a blood clot or similar blockages.

Arrhythmia is a condition when the heartbeat is irregular. It can cause chest pain and shortness of breath, with some cases causing back pain. If not diagnosed in time, the problem can persist and cause a lot of complications. The condition is not nearly as severe as a heart attack, but it could cause pain in the upper back.


Heart attacks are serious medical emergencies, and any person experiencing an attack should immediately contact or visit emergency services if they are experiencing these symptoms:

  • A sense of pressure on the chest,
  • Pain in the chest,
  • Pain in the arm(s) or shoulder(s),
  • Shortness of breath,
  • Light-headedness and nausea,
  • Pain in the jaw, back, or neck.


Treatment options depend on the type of heart attack and how severe it is. There are three types of heart attacks, namely: 

  • Coronary spasms, 
  • ST-segment elevation myocardial infarction (STEMI),
  • Non- ST-segment elevation myocardial infarction (NSTEMI). 

STEMI and NSTEMI are both considered severe heart attacks and can do much damage to the person experiencing them. For these, the doctor may need to use surgical treatments like grafting or stents.

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5) Pleurisy

Pleurisy results from an infection in the tissue covering the exterior of the lungs — the infection results in swelling in the tissue that leads to chest pain and difficulty breathing. Shoulders are also likely to hurt due to this condition. The pain gets worse when a person tries to breathe in deeply.


The symptoms include:

  • Cough and fever,
  • Tiredness,
  • Increased heart rate.


This condition may pass without treatment being needed; doctors commonly recommend resting and medication to relieve pain. However, severe cases might require treatment in the hospital to remove air or fluid from the lungs.

6) Pulmonary Embolism

Pulmonary embolisms result from blood clots in arteries that block supply to the lungs. It is also a serious medical condition and can cause death in extreme cases. 

Since a pulmonary embolism is a condition directly linked with the lungs, a person with the condition will experience pain in their chest and upper back when taking deep breaths. 


Other than back pain, the symptoms of a pulmonary embolism are:

  • Chest pain,
  • A rapid heartbeat,
  • Swelling in the leg,
  • Extreme coughing.


Anticoagulant medications are usually used to break the blood clot down, and a surgical procedure is used to remove it.

When to See a Doctor

Your back might be hurting when you breathe due to any of the above reasons. Some of them are serious, while others may improve without serious procedures being required. People should still be cautious and know when to contact a doctor who can check for any damage to the spine and internal organs. 

A visit to the doctor is necessary if you are experiencing back pain that is severe, frequent, or worsening. One should immediately request medical assistance if back or chest pain is accompanied by:

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath,
  • Loss of consciousness, dizziness, or light-headedness,
  • Severe coughing or blood in cough,
  • Swelling in the legs,
  • Pain in either or both arms,
  • Weakness or numbness.