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What Causes Upper Back Pain When Breathing?

Upper back pain is a common condition that occurs anywhere along the vertebra – starting from the neck’s base down to the bottom of the ribs. But if you’re experiencing this whenever you take deep breaths, it might be a symptom of a more serious health condition that requires the immediate attention of a physician.

So what could be the cause of the upper back pains when breathing? Back pains affect a person’s breathing muscles. They might be a sign of serious health conditions like pleurisy, intercostal muscle strain, spine conditions, panic disorder, arrhythmia, chest infection, lung cancer, obesity, and pulmonary embolism.

9 Possible Causes of Upper Back Pain that Affects Breathing

According to the American Chiropractic Association (ACA), around 80% of the American population has already experienced back pains at some point in their lives. It’s also the most common reason why people miss workdays. The cause for back pains ranges from something as simple as hunching over computers and phones to more serious conditions, such as ruptured discs, bacterial infection, and cancer.

Most cases of back pain are treated with rest, stretches, and medication. But if it’s accompanied by other symptoms, it’s better to consult a doctor to find out the underlying cause. Upper back pain that occurs when a person takes a deep breath is already a sign to visit a physician. Here are some of the possible causes for the discomfort:

1. Pleurisy

This condition attacks the outside tissue covering the lungs. It’s a type of infection that causes the said tissue to swell, resulting in difficulty breathing and chest discomfort. A patient might also experience shoulder and upper back pain. The pain and discomfort only get worse when the person inhales.

Other symptoms that accompany pleurisy include fast heart rate, cough, tiredness, and fever. This condition might improve once the patient gets enough rest or takes pain relievers. Doctors also prescribe other medications that reduce the swelling of the lung tissues and fight the infection. But in some cases, patients might need to get treated in a hospital for a few days to remove the pleural effusion (excess fluid) around the lungs.

2.Intercostal Muscle Strain

Intercostal muscles are found between two adjacent ribs. They’re important for supporting the rib cage in contracting or expanding during diaphragmatic breathing. If at least one of the intercostal muscles is strained in the back area, a person experiences different symptoms that range from stiffness and mild tenderness to sharp pain. Breathing also becomes difficult and the pain worsens whenever the diaphragm moves and the rib cage contracts and expands.

Here are the two most common causes of intercostal muscle strain:

  1. Overuse – Strenuous activities that require the use of intercostal muscles might cause them to overstretch and have small tears. Sudden movements are also enough to strain these muscles.
  2. Trauma – When the person experiences a fall or collision that affects the ribs and the connecting muscles, it  results in injury to one or more intercostal muscles. The accident  might also cause neck or shoulder pain as an additional symptom.

It usually takes around 6 to 8 weeks for the intercostal muscles to heal. Pain medications, ice packs, and heat packs are enough to get the patient through the initial pain. They’re advised to reduce their activities for a few days to avoid further damage to the strained muscles. If there is severe pain, further medical evaluation might be needed.

3. Spine Conditions

Different spine conditions are usually the cause of pain in the upper, mid, and lower back areas. Depending on the location and severity, they might also affect a person’s breathing pattern. Here are some of the most common spine conditions that cause both upper back pain and difficulty breathing:

  • Fractured Vertebra – An individual might fracture their vertebra during an accident, high fall, or sports. If the compression fracture is in the upper part of the spine, it causes a sharp pain in the back that gets worse even when shallow breathing or moving. Specific treatments depend on the fracture’s severity. The patient might be prescribed to wear a back brace or attend physical therapy exercises until they feel significantly better, and the fracture has fully healed.
  • Scoliosis – Scoliosis is the sideway twist and rotation of the spine. Most scoliosis cases cause extreme discomfort for the patient, but it may also start to affect their breathing. Depending on the severity of the curve, the doctor prescribes a variety of treatments including a back brace, as well as invasive or minimally invasive spine correction procedure.
  • Kyphosis – The healthy thoracic spine (upper back) is slightly curved forward. But if the curve is more than 50 degrees, it becomes an abnormal spine condition called “hyperkyphosis.” This is usually treated with a special brace and exercises to prevent the curve from progressing. If the patient starts experiencing difficulty breathing, a surgical procedure might be required.
  • Herniated Disk – Between each vertebra is a spinal disc that’s responsible for absorbing shock. The disc contains a soft center and hard outer layer. A herniated disc occurs when the outer layer is damaged, and the soft center slips out. This results in a pinched nerve that sends sharp pain to the nearby area. The pain worsens during deep breathing. It’s crucial to visit a doctor immediately because untreated herniated discs develop into permanent nerve damage.
  • Spinal Stenosis - This condition refers to the narrowing of the spinal canal. It causes nerve compression that leads to developmental issues for younger patients and degeneration for older patients. Without proper treatment, spinal stenosis might lead to permanent nerve damage, numbness, and paralysis. Treatments for this condition include a surgery that widens space inside the spinal canal to relieve pressure on the spinal cord.
  • Sciatica - is a condition that involves compressed painful nerve roots in the lower back. It usually occurs as a result of a herniated disc or other spinal canal narrowing. Sciatica can cause loss of sensation, tingling, and muscle weakness. Sciatica's intense, shooting nerve pain can sometimes take your breath away. Over-the-counter pain relievers, alternating heat and cold therapy, physical therapy, and, in severe cases, surgery are all used for sciatica pain relief.

4. Panic Disorder

A person is diagnosed with panic disorder when they experience panic attacks and are anxious about these attacks now and then. The anxiety or sudden fear is usually accompanied by other symptoms including difficulty breathing, chest pain, and muscle spasm. Some patients with panic disorder also experience racing heart rate, shaking, sweating, and dizziness.

Panic disorder is treated with relaxation techniques, medication, and therapy. Proper breathing exercise also helps ease the symptoms when the panic attack is about to happen. Each person is used to different treatments, which is why it’s important to consult with a physician to determine the best remedy.

5. Arrhythmia

Back pain accompanied by difficulty breathing is a symptom of a heart attack or arrhythmia, a life-threatening situation that needs immediate assistance from a medical professional. Although it occurs suddenly, there are also cases when a heart attack is slow. It starts when the blood flow to the heart is blocked. Other symptoms of arrhythmia include:

  • Chest pain
  • Pain in the arms
  • Nausea
  • Jaw pain
  • Lightheadedness
  • Pressure in the chest
  • Shortness of breath

The treatment for arrhythmia varies depending on the severity and type of attack. If an individual starts experiencing the symptoms, call emergency services immediately.

6. Chest Infection

Chest infections cause the lungs to swell. Back pain and difficulty breathing are accompanied by other symptoms, such as body ache, high temperature, fever, and cough. The pain becomes sharper whenever the person breathes. Here are two of the most common chest infections that cause upper back pain when breathing:

  1. Pneumonia – This condition causes the air sacs of the lungs to be filled with fluid. The specific symptoms vary depending on the severity, but most patients experience abdominal and back pain when coughing or breathing. The treatments depend on the type of infection – antibiotics for bacteria and supportive treatments for viruses.
  2. Bronchitis – This happens when the passages between the mouth, nose, and lungs become swollen and inflamed. Bronchitis might be acute or chronic. Treatments for bronchitis include rest, over-the-counter medicine, fluids, and antibiotics.

Mild chest infections are treated with pain relievers, fluids, and rest. But if the infection is severe, the patient needs to see a doctor immediately.

7. Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is a serious health condition that doesn’t present its symptoms early on. Patients experience chest pain that worsens when coughing or breathing. Once the cancer cells spread to other parts of the body, it causes pain in the patient’s hips or back.

Tumors might also develop in the lungs. Once it starts pressing on the spinal nerves, the patient might have back pains whenever they breathe. Other symptoms of this condition include:

  • Chronic cough that has traces of blood
  • Recurring infections in the respiratory system
  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Loss of appetite and unexplained weight loss

Treatments for lung cancer depend on the type, location of the cancer cells, size of the tumor, cancer stage, and patient’s overall health. Some of the options include chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation therapy.

8. Obesity   

Obesity forces the body to carry excess weight. This puts pressure on an individual’s joints, back, and other body parts that might become painful over time. Some obese people even have difficulty breathing because it delivers a sharp pain in their bodies.

Healthy weight loss with a calorie-restriction diet helps relieve pain in the joints, back, and other parts of the body. If an individual has trouble keeping a healthy weight, it might be a good idea to consult a doctor because certain conditions hinder weight loss, such as hormonal causes.

9. Pulmonary Embolism

This condition happens when a blood clot develops in the arteries that deliver blood to the lungs. It affects the normal blood flow, which may be life-threatening. An individual with pulmonary embolism experiences upper back pain whenever they breathe. Other symptoms also include:

  • Dizziness
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Coughing
  • Chest pain
  • Leg swelling

Some of the treatments for pulmonary embolism include anticoagulant medication or surgical procedures to remove the clot. It’s a medical emergency that requires the immediate attention of a medical professional.

When to Visit a Doctor for Upper Back Pain

Doctor with old patient

Most cases of upper back pain subside after some time of at-home treatments, such as over-the-counter medicine or stretching routine. But if it’s accompanied by other symptoms, it’s better to see a doctor to get treated immediately. Visit a physician if you’re experiencing the following upper back pain symptoms:

  • It’s both severe and persistent.
  • It worsens progressively.
  • It didn’t improve after a week of at-home treatment.
  • It starts interfering with daily routines.
  • It’s accompanied by other neurologic symptoms, such as weakness, numbness, loss of bladder control, and others.

Accidents and injuries also warrant an immediate trip to a doctor’s office. Even an injury that has fully healed has to be examined if it starts aching again.

How is Upper Back Pain When Breathing Treated?

After consulting with a physician about the upper back pain when breathing, they might prescribe any of the following solutions:

  • Physical Therapy – This treatment helps relieve pain and discomfort in the problem areas. It also strengthens the muscles in the upper back, shoulder blade, and neck. Physical therapy is also the fastest way to help patients return to their daily routines if the upper back pain is caused by injury and trauma.
  • Medication – If the upper back pain doesn’t have an underlying cause, pain killers are enough to relieve discomfort in the upper back. Make sure to listen well to the physician to learn more about which medicines to take and which ones to avoid.
  • Injections – Injections allow doctors to deliver powerful pain medication directly to the facet joints and nerve root. They provide temporary pain relief for patients who want to try other treatments, such as exercise and physical therapy. But with the right dose, these injections are enough to relieve acute or chronic pain. Consult with a physician first to find out how pain relief injections help with your case.
  • Massage – A good massage from an experienced massage therapist is enough to loosen the tense muscles in the back. It also helps the blood flow freely to the problem areas. Massage therapists are experienced in targeting different spots in the upper back to deliver maximum pain relief for their patients.
  • Good Posture – Poor posture is one of the biggest reasons why upper back pain is such a common condition among many Americans. Ensuring a good posture whenever a person walks, sits, or lifts heavy objects help reduce the risk of upper back pain and other complications.
  • Treatment of the Underlying Cause – Pain relief medication and stretching exercises won’t do much if the upper back pain is a symptom of a more serious health condition. It’s still important to determine the underlying cause and treat it for a patient to experience pain relief for a long time. Make sure to consult a physician for an accurate diagnosis of back pain. They also prescribe the right treatment plan depending on the patient’s true condition.

Visit a Specialist at New York Pain Care Today

New York Pain Care is the premier center for physical therapy and pain management in New Jersey. Our team of board-certified physical therapists and doctors is always ready to provide one-on-one care for each of our clients.

After a thorough consultation and accurate diagnosis of the condition that causes the upper back and neck pain when breathing, our doctors develop a custom-fit treatment plan to promote recovery and relieve pain as soon as possible.

At New York Pain Care, we understand that our clients have busy schedules, which is why they can simply call us or visit our website to book an appointment between 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM. Experience comprehensive care and treatment for back pain here at New York Pain Care now. Get in touch with us by calling (646) 846-1824

Learn more: What It Means When You Feel Upper Stomach and Back Pain Together

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