Upper Back Pain When Breathing

Upper back pain when breathing can leave you feeling gravely concerned for your wellbeing, as issues with your breathe can be caused by serious underlying issues.

Sometimes, though, it’s not anything to be worried about. But how do you tell when you just need ice and rest, and when you need to visit the emergency room?

We’ll cover all the different causes of this specific type of back pain, and help you determine whether or not a doctor appointment or hospital visit should be your next move. Then, we’ll share some home remedies for treating your upper back pain

What Are Some Potential Causes Of Upper Back Pain When Breathing?

Part of the problem when it comes to diagnosing upper back pain while breathing is that it can be tough to differentiate between causes.

Plus, the severity of the different causes can range pretty greatly. It can be something as simple as an overuse situation resulting in a muscle strain. Or, it can be as serious as a lung issue, such as pulmonary embolism (a blood clot in your lung), or a heart attack.

Fortunately, you can get a better idea of what you’re dealing with by examining other symptoms. If you are concerned for your health at all, however, it’s always worth a trip to the hospital for peace of mind. Let’s start on the less serious and more common side of the spectrum.

Muscle strain or overuse injury

One of the most common causes of pain in the upper back when breathing is from overuse or straining a muscle. This is especially common in physically active and athletic individuals who train hard.

This is usually easy to diagnose, as most often you’ll have felt yourself “tweak” something. It can occur from sudden twisting, heavy lifting with poor form, or physical trauma from a car accident, hit, or fall.

One of the most common upper back injuries that results in difficulty breathing has to do with the ribs. It’s surprisingly easy to displace a rib, which can result in serious pain while breathing.

While this any type of upper back pain in the elderly can be exacerbated through heavy breathing, the good news is it goes away pretty quickly. Usually, this ailment can be resolved with rest, ice, NSAIDs, and in severe cases, physical therapy or chiropractic care.


Another common cause of back pain while breathing is scoliosis. This is a spine development issue caused by rapid growth spurts, most often in young teens.

It results in a curvature of the spine, and in severe cases, puts pressure on the lungs. In this instance, it can cause shortness of breath and severe pain when inhaling.

Treatment for scoliosis involves a back brace, physical therapy, and in severe cases, spinal surgery to straighten the patient out.


Kyphosis is a spinal condition similar to scoliosis. Whereas scoliosis involved sideways curvature of the spine, kyphosis involved an upper curving spine.

This leads to a hunchback appearance, and can cause severe upper back pain, along with shortness of breath.

In most instances, kyphosis can be treated with a corrective back brace and physical therapy. However, once it’s progressed to the point where one has difficulty breathing, surgery is usually the only option.


Another potential reason for upper back pain when breathing can be pleurisy. This starts as inflammation of the pleura, the two membranes in your chest and lung cavities.

When these become too inflamed, it makes breathing painful, sending shooting pain into your upper back and shoulders.

Treatment for pleurisy typically involved antibiotics and steroids.


Pneumonia is a serious lung infection, typically caused by chronic coughs or exposure to bacteria.

In some instances, pneumonia can cause serious back pain when coughing or breathing. This is usually accompanied by other flu-like symptoms, such as fever, wheezing, vomiting, coughing up phlegm, etc.

More serious lung issues

There are two types of lung issues that can result in severe upper back pain when breathing – lung cancer and pulmonary embolism.

Lung cancer is a devastating illness that often goes undetected until it’s too late. The first signs of it are typically shortness of breath, which progresses into painful breathing and sharp pains in the middle and upper back.

Pulmonary embolism is another lung issue characterized as a blood clot in the lungs. Those afflicted will experience sharp pain when taking a deep breath.

Both of these conditions are life threatening and require immediate treatment. While the outlook for lung cancer is less optimistic, pulmonary embolism can be remedied through medications and surgery if caught in time.


One of the leading causes of death in the US is obesity. This weight-related illness puts all kinds of pressure on your spine and surrounding organs, which can cause pain when breathing.

It’s usually not difficult to determine if you are obese, which makes it easier to isolate this cause. The good news is in most cases, simply following a calorie-restricted diet with light exercise is all it takes to alleviate the problem.

Heart attack

Perhaps the most serious of causes when it comes to upper back pain while breathing is a heart attack. This issue requires immediate medical assistance, so knowing the warning signs is a huge step in treatment.

  • Chest pain and pressure
  • Pain in one or both arms, shoulder, and sides of the back
  • Shortness of breath
  • Lightheadedness

If you have more than one of these symptoms, you should immediately contact emergency services or have someone drive you to them.

Final thoughts on upper back pain when breathing

As you can see, causes and severity of pain in the upper back when breathing range greatly. But, by narrowing down the specific symptoms that accompany your pain can help you determine whether you just need rest and recovery, or a trip to the emergency room.

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Stevie Compango, CNSC, CPT

Stevie is Certified Nutrition Specialist and Certified Personal Trainer for the past 10 years. He specializes in mobility and chronic pain management. His methods have helped thousands of clients improve the quality of their life through movement.

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