Why does my back hurt when I breathe?

BACK pain that worsens when breathing can have a number of causes, some of which are extremely serious.

For most people, however, it’s unlikely to be an emergency.

Dr Sarah Jarvis, GP and Clinical Director of Patientaccess.com, said: “The most common reason for pain in your back when you breathe is a strained muscle. 

“The intercostal muscles between your ribs are stretched every time you breathe in and if you’ve strained on (from a fall, a blow to your chest, violent coughing etc) you will get pain when you breathe.”

This type of acute injury tends to get better on its own.

It may also be accompanied by difficulty moving – everyone has pulled a muscle in their back at some point and felt that restrictive pain throughout the day. 

Dr Jarvis warned of some more serious causes of back breathing pain that would need more immediate medical attention.

She said: “Inflammation of the ‘pleura’ – the membranes that cover the outside of the lung and the inside of the chest wall – can also lead to pain when you breathe. 

“This can happen if you have pneumonia, pleurisy or a blood clot on the lung.”

Pneumonia can vary in severity, from mild cases to those that are life-threatening and need hospital care.

It’s caused by an infection, for example Covid, or flu and also has symptoms of 

Pleurisy is also the result of an infection, and the most common symptom is a sharp chest pain when breathing deeply, sometiems felt in the shoulder.

Meanwhile, a blood clot on the lung, medically known as a pulmonary embolism, is when a blood vessel in the lungs gets blocked.

It can kill in minutes, but is treatable if caught early.

“A heart attack can also sometimes cause back as well as chest pain”, said Dr Jarvis.

It can be difficult to spot a heart attack because the symptoms are often mistook for indigestion or a panic attack.

If you have pain in the chest, arms, jaw, neck, back or stomach, alongside dizziness, sweating, shortness of breath, coughing, feeling or being sick or a feeling of anxiety, it could be a warning sign of a heart attack. 

You should call 999 straight away.

KNOW THE SIGNS

Another cause of back pain when breathing is a fracture in the vertebra (one of the bones of the spine).

“This is more likely if you have osteoporosis, or thinning of the bones,” Dr Jarvis said.

It can also be the result of an injury, such as being crushed in an accident.

Pain from a fractured vertebra often gets worse with movement, and there may be some tingling or weakness, depending on if the spinal cord is impacted.

Some people have a condition called scoliosis, of which one of the main symptoms is pain when breathing.

It’s when the spine curves abnormally, putting pressure on the lungs and heart. 

The condition is usually visible as uneven shoulders or hips and is typically diagnosed in teenagers. 

When should you see a doctor?

Regardless of what the underlying reason for your back breathing pain is, it may be cause to see the doctor.

Dr Jarvis says you should always seek help under the following circumastances: “If you’ve had an injury to your chest or spine; are short of breath or cough up blood; feel sick or dizzy; also have pain in your chest, jaw, arm or shoulder; have a fever; have osteoporosis; or have severe pain.”

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