What are the Most Common Causes of Upper Back Pain When Breathing?

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  • Written By: Autumn Rivers
  • Edited By: Andrew Jones
  • Last Modified Date: 08 October 2019
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Experiencing upper back pain when breathing can be scary, but the good news is that it does not always signal a serious medical issue. In fact, the underlying problem is often a muscle injury. Spinal stenosis is another possibility, which involves the spine's ligaments and bones pressing on nerves in the area, though lung cancer may have similar symptoms. Pleurisy, or inflammation of the lungs, may also be the cause of upper back pain when exhaling and inhaling. Additionally, it may be the result of a temporary illness, such as pneumonia, or more serious disorders, such as lupus.

Breathing is a task that involves some of the back muscles, which is why pain in the upper back when breathing is often a sign of a pulled or sore muscle. The upper back muscles may be injured, though lower back, abdominal, and diaphragm muscles are also often affected by every breath. Each breath can cause a spasm in the muscle, which is why injuries to muscles in this area can be so hard to endure. Fortunately, the issue should go away once the muscle heals.


Some people experiencing this kind of pain when breathing may have spinal stenosis, in which the ligaments and bones put pressure on the nerves near the spine. To get rid of this issue, some of the bones and ligaments in question typically need to be removed. While this is not usually a life-threatening issue, lung cancer often has the same symptoms, especially when a nearby tumor gets large enough to create pressure in the back. Additionally, lung cancer can spread to the back bones, causing upper back pain, which is why patients should typically see a doctor soon after the discomfort begins.

In some cases, upper back pain when breathing is caused by lung inflammation, which is often called pleurisy since the lining over the lungs is called the pleura. The pain of pleurisy often comes from either inflamed pleura or a reduction in the fluid that is meant to lubricate the lungs, which makes every breath hurt. Some of the most common reasons behind lung inflammation include pneumonia and tuberculosis, both of which can typically be treated with prescription drugs.

Unfortunately, some causes of upper back pain when breathing come from severe chronic conditions. These include autoimmune disorders like lupus, which is a lifelong condition that usually comes with much more severe symptoms than just back pain when breathing. Other serious ailments that may cause upper back pain when inhaling and exhaling include sarcoidosis and cystic fibrosis, requiring diagnosis and treatment from a medical professional as soon as possible.


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Post 3

@Mor - It's probably not something serious, particularly if it's a woman experiencing the pain. I know that I often get sore towards the end of the day because my bra has been putting more pressure on my back than it might otherwise receive.

And breathing in increases that pressure so it's not surprising that it might be increasing the pain as well.

Post 2

@pleonasm - That was one of the reasons I finally managed to give up smoking. I hated the fact that it could be harming other people.

I think I would be quite worried if I was only getting pain in my back when breathing. If it's just a steady ache, it's probably only a muscular thing, like fatigue or a pulled muscle. But if you are feeling pain when breathing it might be your lungs or something else that just feels like the muscles. I would go and get it checked out.

Post 1

My mother was experiencing this, as well as having trouble breathing in general. Even if she wasn't doing anything strenuous, she would start to get a shortness of breath and would feel like she was almost having a panic attack.

Eventually she went to the doctor and they told her that she had what they called small airways disease, which was causing the pain in her upper back as well as the trouble breathing.

All they could really do is give her an inhaler and tell her to be careful about not overextending herself.

It makes me really angry when I think about it too much, because she's never smoked a cigarette in her life, but she was exposed to a lot of secondhand smoke through her job in a bar twenty years ago and I think that is what has caught up to her now.

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